Many types of cancer are on the rise today, and skin cancer is one of the worst offenders. Perhaps it is a factor of the changing ozone layer that makes the sun more harmful these days, the fact that we are consuming unhealthy oils and foods, or just indifference on the part of many, whether it is due to ignorance or apathy, regarding irresponsible exposure to the sun. I cringe when I see sun worshippers baking themselves in the scorching heat, simply for fashion. Add to that the over-use of tanning salons today, and it does not bode well for skin cancer rates to take a downturn in the near future. What can I do to protect myself and my family? Let’s start with a little education about skin cancer.
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer, like any cancer, involves abnormal growth of cells. There are three main types of skin cancer, and they all affect different types of skin cells. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are two types of skin cancer that are found in the outer layers of the skin. They are generally slow growing, and can usually be successfully treated, especially if discovered early. The third kind of skin cancer is called melanoma, and it is found much deeper in the tissues, and has a greater propensity for spreading to other parts of the body. It is a much more dangerous type of skin cancer, and is the culprit in most fatal cases of skin cancer. There are about 800,000 incidences of skin cancer in the United States annually, and the numbers are climbing every year. There are multiple factors that put one at a greater risk, but overexposure to the sun is by far the number one cause of skin cancer. Most carcinomas appear on parts of the body that receive the most direct sunlight, such as the scalp, ears, face, arms, hands, and shoulders. However, skin cancer can also form on body parts that normally don’t get much sun, such as the genitals, between the toes, the palms of the hand, and the soles of the feet.
Perhaps a little knowledge about the structure of the skin, the body’s largest organ, will help us understand skin cancer better. The skin is composed of three major layers: the epidermis (outermost), the dermis, and the subcutis (innermost). The epidermis is a protective layer that continually sheds old, dead skin cells, and replaces them with new. Next is the layer of squamous cells, and on the bottom of the epidermis are the basal skin cells. Part of the way in which the epidermis acts as a protective shield is by producing a substance called melanin, which plays several roles. First, it gives skin its normal color. Second, when the skin is exposed to the sun, the amount of melanin is increased, producing more pigment to better protect the skin. This is why you get a “tan” when you are out in the sun. People with darker skin naturally have more melanin, and are therefore more protected than fair-skinned folks. The entire process of skin rejuvenation, the shedding of the old cells and the production of new ones, is controlled by DNA. If an abnormality develops, the body will start producing skin cells that develop out of control, and a mass of cancerous cells called a tumor may arise.
- Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. It is involved with about nine out of ten cases. It is also the most easily treated, and the most unlikely type to spread to other parts of the body (metastasize). It is characterized by:
- A pearly or waxy-appearing lump, usually found on the ears, face or neck.
- A flat brown or flesh-colored mark on the chest or back.
- Squamous cell carcinoma is also very treatable when caught early. It is not likely to spread, but the chance is a bit greater than for basal cell. Squamous cell typically appears as:
- A nodule on the face, lips, ears, arms, or hands; it is usually firm and reddish in color.
- A flat lesion that often appears crusted or scaly. Most often found in the same locations as basal, except that it will rarely form on the lips.
- Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. It can form from a wound or existing lesion, or in otherwise healthy appearing skin. Many times melanoma will form at the site of basal or squamous cancers, if they are left untreated. It can easily metastasize, which is what makes it so dangerous. It often spreads through the blood or lymph system. Melanoma can appear in many different forms. An acronym (ABCD) has been developed to help spot it:
- A for Asymetrical: Look for moles or lesions with different appearing halves.
- B for irregular border: Any moles with a scalloped or notched appearance.
- C for changes in color: Moles or growths that are uneven in color, or multicolored.
- D for diameter: Melanoma often appears in growths greater than ¼ inch in diameter.
- Also be aware of melanoma that appears in the form of dark lesions in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, anus, or vagina; or on the fingertips, toes, palms, or soles of the feet.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
Any damage to the skin can alter the DNA and result in the growth of cancerous skin cells. As mentioned previously, excessive exposure to the sun or tanning lamps is the main culprit. However, other skin damage, such as wounds or chemical irritation, can also lead to skin cancer in some instances. But the facts are that most skin cancer is caused by too much UV (ultraviolet) light from the sun.
UV light is found in three varieties: Ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet C (you guessed it, UVC). UVC is not a factor, as it is absorbed by the ozone in the atmosphere, and never reaches the earth. UVA is a major player in sunburn and the resulting damage to DNA and increased risk for skin cancer. It was thought for many years that UVB had little to do with risk for skin cancer. However, times have changed, and while UVA is the main villain in sunlight, the use of tanning lamps and beds exposes patrons to dangerously high levels of UVB. In fact, studies have shown that short, intense exposure to UVB in a tanning salon damages the DNA in skin cells more than sunburn does.
Other risk factors for skin cancer include:
- Fair skin: People with light skin and light-colored eyes have a greater incidence of skin cancer than folks with darker skin. If you have freckles your risk is greater as well.
- Past sunburns: Even one severe sunburn as a young person can greatly increase your chance of developing skin cancer as an adult. Don’t do it. A “tan” is not worth the risk.
- Excessive time in the sun: This can be a factor that affects folks in certain occupations. Farmers are one good example.
- Age: While skin cancer can afflict any one at any age, most cases are found in individuals over 40.
- Climate: If you live in a very sunny part of the world, or at a high altitude, you are also at increased risk for skin cancer.
- History of skin cancer: If you personally have had skin cancer in the past, be especially careful because your risk for another bout with it is increased. The same is true if it runs in your family. There is even a condition called familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM), whereby people inherit a pattern of atypical moles, and are at an extremely high risk for skin cancer.
- Unusual moles: When certain kinds of moles are present on your skin, your risk for cancer may also be increased. They are technically known as dysplastic nevi. Beware of moles that are unusually large, and that may look irregular. Make note of any changes in these moles.
- Precancerous skin lesions: If you are diagnosed with skin lesions called actinic keratoses, keep a very close eye on these pre-cancerous growths. Take special precautions to prevent undue exposure to the sun.
- Compromised immune system: If you have an illness that has weakened your immune system, such as diabetes or AIDS, your risk for skin cancer is increased. You can also experience a weakening of your immune system due to certain treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
What Treatments Are Available for Skin Cancer?
The best treatment is prevention, but if you already have developed skin cancer, you want to focus on early detection. The sooner you catch it, the greater the chance of stopping it. Surgery can be very successful with most cases of basal and squamous carcinomas. It can often be done on an outpatient basis, usually with just a local anesthesia. There are many different types of procedures that can be used. If you go the surgical route, talk it over with your doctor to be sure that you are informed of all your options. I would research any procedure on my own, and not take the doctor’s word for it. It is my life, not his, that may be at stake if the cancer is not dealt with effectively.
Sometimes chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be suggested for more serious cases, especially with melanoma. This is a decision that must not be taken lightly. Some people choose to go the natural, alternative route when dealing with cancer. Some decide to use chemo or radiation, and back it up with a nutritrional and supplemental support regimen that can help protect the body from the serious side effects of the chemo/radiation. It is a very personal choice that nobody should make for you. Try to research and educate yourself as much as you can before making your decision. Find out what has worked and what has not worked for others in your specific situation.
As far as prevention goes, it is mostly common sense. Staying out of the sun, especially during the peak hours of 10am-4pm, will go a long way in reducing your risk for skin cancer. Sunscreen is often recommended, but I would only recommend natural-ingredient sunscreens. Many products expose you to toxic chemicals that can weaken or damage your skin. If you must be in the sun, be sure to wear adequate protective clothing.
Eating a healthy diet that includes healthy oils will not only help your immune system but will also affect the way that you skin protects itself. Dr. Johanna Budwig, a top European cancer researcher, suggested that when the body has the right balance of healthy oils and proteins, it has a magnetic field which attracts the photons in sunlight and thus is open to the healing effects of the sun. Healthy oils would include organic flaxseed oil (most recommended by Dr. Budwig), hemp seed oil, coconut oil and cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. According to Dr. Budwig: “Scientifically, these oils are even known as electron–rich essential highly unsaturated fats. But, when people began to treat fats to make them keep longer, no-one stopped to consider the consequences of this, for the existence and higher development of the human race. These vitally important amounts of electrons, with their continual movement and wonderful reaction of light were destroyed. Dr Budwig mentioned that doctors tell patients and cancer patients to avoid the sun as they cannot tolerate it and that is correct. She says once these patients start on her oil-protein nutritional advice for two or three days which means they have been getting sufficient amounts of essential fats, they can then tolerate the sun very well. She said the patients then tell her how much better they feel as their vitality and vigor is re-stimulated.”When it comes to skin cancer, or any other wellness issue for that matter, you are the one that should be aware and proactive. Know your body, and monitor yourself for any unusual or unexpected changes. This is the most effective way to stay well and maintain the gift of health.