Skin cancer is on the rise in children and young adults, especially in Texas, a state high on the list for newly diagnosed cases.

In order to understand skin cancer, it is necessary to understand the skin. The skin is the largest organ of the human body and is formed of two layers—the dermis (the thick inner layer), and the epidermis (the outer layer that is seen), where skin cancer tends to develop. Within the epidermis are three types of cells: squamous cells that form the flat top layer of skin, basal cells that are round and found beneath the squamous cells and melanocytes cells that form the bottom layer of the epidermis and produce the pigment that gives skin its color.

All skin cancers fall into one of two categories—melanoma or non-melanoma. Melanoma begins in melanocytes, the cells that produce the pigment, and non-melanoma is any other type of skin cancer.

MALIGNANT MELANOMA 

Melanoma is more aggressive than non-melanoma cancers and does not only occur on the skin; it also can be found on the mucous membranes and in the eye. As the name states, melanoma originates in the melanocytes and presents as dark spots on the skin; however, some melanomas don’t contain pigment, making them difficult to diagnose.

The thickness of a melanoma spot can reveal if the cancer has likely spread to nearby lymph nodes (small structures that are part of the immune system) or other areas of the body such as the lungs and liver.

Most melanomas that are localized to the skin can often be treated surgically; however, if the melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes or other organs, surgery is not an option and no successful treatment has been discovered. Interestingly enough, though, partial auto-regression has been seen with melanoma, most likely due to its rejection by the person’s immune system.

The risk factors for melanoma are UV radiation, family history and fair skin. UV radiation is basically any light that results in a tan or burn, whether it is from the sun or a tanning bed. People of all skin colors should protect their skin by using sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses with UV protections on a regular basis. This is especially important for those with fair-skin, those who burn easily and those who spend time in the sun on a regular basis.

It is important to know your skin and to keep an eye out for any changes. Take note of any new skin growths and changes to its surface and remember your ABCDs: A for Asymmetry of moles in any way; B for uneven Borders; C for various Colors within a mole; and D for a Diameter greater than 6 mm. Report any ABCDs to your physician right away.

NON-MELANOMA

The two main types of non-melanoma skin cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma: the first affects the outer layer of the epidermis and the second the round cells just beneath it. Although non-melanoma skin cancers do not tend to spread (metastasize) to distant areas of the body, they can spread to nearby tissue and be disfiguring due to scars or the surgery performed to remove the cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma generally appears on the skin as a raised pearl-like bump or a flat scar and can cause extensive damage to the skin and surrounding tissues. Very rarely does it metastasize.

Squamous cell carcinoma often appears as a red bump that may or may not bleed or a rough or scaly area on the skin. Although not common, it has a greater chance than basal cell carcinoma of metastasizing to lymph nodes and distant parts of the body.

Both squamous and basal cell carcinomas most commonly develop on areas of the body that have been or are constantly exposed to sunlight or the like, especially the head, neck, ears, nose, lips and hands; however, the cancers can develop elsewhere, so be aware of sores that do not seem to be healing, any new growths that appear and changes to what is normal for your skin.

Be mindful of your skin. Find fashionable ways to keep the sun off your face and neck and use quality sun block on skin areas that are constantly exposed to the sun. If you are tanning your skin for the sake of beauty, take note that non-tanned skin is more beautiful than scars and disfiguration. If you think that you may have developed skin cancer, see your physician right away.

Sources: American Cancer Society, Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Cancer Institute

Written by Lora Incardona