Awareness Key in Spotting Skin Cancer

The skin is the body’s largest organ, but it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Your skin is your body’s outer protection against the world and takes a beating, whether it’s from the elements or your daily activities. When patients come in for their annual check-ups, I always take a careful look at their skin and ask about any concerns they have about any rashes, spots or moles. For some patients, this may be the only time they’ve really thought about their skin or that someone is taking a good look at it. (Even with mirrors, it’s hard to see all parts of our skin.)

When talking with patients about their skin, cancer is often their top concern. Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer. There are three main types of skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. While it’s usually found in areas that get a lot of sun exposure like your face or hands, it can also appear in other places, including beneath your fingernails.

Here’s a look at the types of skin cancer and what to look for:

  • Basal cell carcinoma usually appears in areas that receive a lot of sun exposure, such as your face and neck. It can either appear as a pearly, waxy bump or a flat flesh- or brown-colored lesion.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma also commonly appears on body areas that get a lot of sun. This type of cancer looks like a firm, red nodule or a flat lesion with a crusty surface.
  • Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer and can appear anywhere on the body. Signs of melanoma include a large brown spot with darker speckles, a mole that changes color or bleeds, a small lesion with irregular borders or dark lesions on areas that don’t see a lot of sunlight, such as your nail beds or the lining of your nose.

Always ask your medical provider if you have questions about any skin changes. If a suspicious spot does turn out to be cancer, doctors have several options to remove it. For many patients, that’s the only treatment needed. The key is to catch it quickly before the cancer cells grow too deeply into your skin or spread elsewhere.

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to always wear sunscreen – even in the winter – since sun damage is cumulative. Remember to add a hat on sunny days when you’ll be outside a long time to protect our scalp. Also stay away from tanning booths – there’s no such thing as a safe tan, unless it’s sprayed on. By taking these precautions and paying attention to any changes, you’ll protect your body’s largest organ.

Scott Schuldes is a certified family nurse practitioner and associate medical director at ThedaCare Physicians-Hilbert. He can be reached at scott.schuldes@thedacare.org.