Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., but it's still widely misunderstood. Many people have questions about skin cancer and their risk of developing the disease. In honor of May being Skin Cancer Awareness Month, we answer some of your most commonly asked questions.
1. What does skin cancer look like?
Many of us have moles, freckles, or birthmarks on our skin. It can be difficult to determine if a mark is normal or if it should be looked at by a doctor. Skin marks that change over time can be an indication of skin cancer. It's important to conduct monthly self-exams so you notice any changes in your skin.
When doing self-exams, the "ABCDE rule" can help you remember what to look for.
- Asymmetrical moles or marks
- Borders that are irregular or jagged
- Colors that are non-uniform and different shades
- Diameters of more than 1/4 inch
- Evolving or changing in any way, including size, color or shape
2. Can people with dark skin get skin cancer?
People of all races and ethnicities develop skin cancer. Everyone, regardless of their skin tone, should wear sunscreen and stay in the shade during peak sunlight hours.
It's a dangerous myth that people with dark skin can't get skin cancer. African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed in later stages of melanoma, and because of this, they also have the lowest overall survival rate for melanoma than any other group.
3. Can skin cancer start on covered body parts?
You can develop skin cancer on any part of your body. Skin cancer does primarily affect areas that receive regular sun exposure like your head, neck, arms, and legs. However, you can develop skin cancer on the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, underneath your fingernails and toenails, and on your genitals.
4. If I get a sunburn, will it turn into skin cancer?
A single sunburn unlikely to develop into skin cancer. But over time, too much sun exposure increases your chances of developing skin cancer. Both suntans and sunburns indicate that you've sustained damage to your skin cells.
Repeated overexposure to the sun can also make your skin age faster, making you look older than you actually are. You might notice more wrinkles or that your skin has become very dry skin. You can also develop precancerous lesions on your skin.
5. Can you die from skin cancer?
When recognized and caught early, all forms of skin cancer are treatable. It is extremely rare for a person in the U.S. to die from basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma. According to the American Cancer Society, most people who experience terminal basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma are elderly patients who sought treatment after their cancer had grown quite large.
If not caught early, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body. Once melanoma spreads, it is more difficult to treat. However, the vast majority of people diagnosed with melanoma are able to successfully treat it.
6. Is skin cancer painful?
Initially, it may not be. Most skin cancers can be seen or felt before they become painful, itchy, or otherwise uncomfortable. Any unusual mark on your skin should be examined by a doctor. The sooner skin cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat. Don't dismiss a skin growth, scaly patch, or sore just because it isn't causing you any discomfort.
7. Can you get skin cancer from a tanning bed?
Yes. Regardless of what tanning salons lead you to believe, tanning beds are no safer than exposure to the sun. Both sunlight and tanning beds expose your skin to harmful UV radiation. Teens and young adults who use tanning beds greatly increase their chance of developing melanoma.
Everyone must take precautions to protect themselves against skin cancer. You can keep your skin its healthiest by using sunscreen, avoiding overexposure, and doing month self-exams.