January is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and even though there’s plenty of information available about melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer) and sun protection, we don’t hear much about non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) left. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer worldwide, and NMSC accounts for around 97% of all skin cancers!!
What is NMSC, and what do you need to look out for?
The two most common types of NMSC are Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC). Both of these arise from the superficial layers of the skin and are slow growing. BCC seldom spreads to other organs (but still causes local damage), while SCC is more likely to spread to the lymph nodes. Although melanoma is much faster spreading and more lethal, non- melanoma skin cancers are more common, can cause much cosmetic and functional distress and can eventually lead to death.
What causes NMSC?
Sun (UV) exposure (including tanning beds) is the main cause, so naturally these cancers are seen more in elderly and lighter-skinned people. Your risk also increases if you have skin that burns easily and/or have a family history of skin cancer. NMSC most commonly develops on the face (especially the ears, lips and nose), neck, upper back, arms and hands – which is why surgical treatment can leave serious cosmetic issues if it’s left late. Also, once you have had one cancerous lesion there’s a 40% chance you’ll develop another within 3 years! Most of the damage to your skin is done before the age of 18, so it’s essential that encourage sun savvy behaviour in your kids from an early. As far as South Africans go, we need to be extra vigilant when it comes to protecting ourselves from the sun, due to the hole in the ozone layer right over our country.
Studies have shown that general knowledge and education of NMSC is poor, which means that on occasion there have been delays of up to 5 years when making a diagnosis. It seems that while people are aware of unusual lesions that pop up, they often assume it’s just a sign of aging, so they self-medicate for ages before finally going to the doctor. Interestingly, recent studies have also shown that hairdressers were identified as being the people who picked up on a large percentage of the lesions, prompting people to seek help. So, ladies – there’s as good a reason as any to get your hair done regularly!
So what do you need to look out for?
Rough feeling red, brown or skin colour lesions that do not go away, itch, burn, enlarge or bleed without healing (a premalignant condition that will become Squamous Cell Carcinoma)
SQUAMOUS CELL CARCINOMA
Growth or patch of skin that feels scaly, bleeds, or develops a crust.
Sore that does not heal.
BASAL CELL CARCINOMA
Pearly, smooth, fleshy lumps with an indentation in the middle. This may bleed, scab then bleed again continuously or even look like a scar
If you are concerned please go to your GP or a Dermatologist to be examined promptly and do not delay! A good guide is to make sure you visit a Dermatologist annually over the age of 35yrs so that you skin can be checked and any moles you have can be mapped- prevention is better than cure!