Living Well

What is Skin Cancer?

Sarah Jackson, M.D.
What is Skin Cancer?

There are two different kinds of ultraviolet radiation (UV) that comes from the sun. You probably have heard of UVA and UVB rays – both are dangerous. These rays cause premature wrinkles and increase your chances of developing skin cancer. They are always present, even when it’s cloudy.

UVA rays, which pass through window glass, penetrate deeper into the dermis, the thickest layer of the skin. UVA rays can also cause suppression of the immune system, which interferes with its ability to protect you against the development and spread of skin cancer. Moreover, UVA exposure is known to lead to signs of premature aging of the skin, such as wrinkling and age spots. UVB rays are the sun’s burning rays, which are blocked by window glass and the primary cause of sunburn.

A good way to remember the difference between the two rays is that UVA rays are the aging rays and UVB rays are the burning rays. Excessive exposure to both forms of UV rays can lead to the development of skin cancer. Some of the damage caused by UV rays is permanent destruction of the skin’s supporting structure – the collagen and elastic fibers, freckling, wrinkling, dilated blood vessels, suspicious skin lesions, redness, drug reactions and skin cancer.

Is there a safe way to tan?

What you need to know is that there is no safe way to tan. A tan is the skin’s response to injury caused by UV exposure. To protect your skin from UV damage, your body makes melanin every day. Melanin is the pigment that gives color to your skin and eyes.

When your skin gets damaged by the sun’s rays, it makes more melanin to try and protect your skin from further damage. That causes the skin to change color – darken or burn. The overexposure of ultraviolet light, both natural and artificial, can result in changes to the skin’s texture such as wrinkles and age spots. Thus, tanning to improve your appearance is ultimately self-defeating. Every time you tan, you damage your skin and this damage accumulates over time. This accumulated damage, in addition to accelerating the aging process, increases your risk of developing skin cancer.

Woman laying out by the pool

Types of skin cancer

There are three different types of skin cancer. The most common types are basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. However, the most deadly form of skin cancer is melanoma. Early detection and treatment are very important with all three types.

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma
    • Most common form of cancer worldwide
    • Most often appears on sun-exposed areas such as the face, scalp, ears, chest, back, and legs.
    • Most common appearance of basal cell carcinoma is that of a small dome-shaped bump that has a pearly white color.
    • Another common sign is a sore that bleeds and heals, only to recur again.

If you have already had one basal cell carcinoma, studies have shown that you are at a 40 percent risk of getting a second basal cell carcinoma within five years. Individuals who have had multiple basal cell carcinomas or other skin cancers, such as squamous cell, also are at an increased risk for melanoma.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma
    • Second most common skin cancer.
    • Usually appear as crusted or scaly patches on the skin with a red, inflamed base, a growing tumor, or a non-healing ulcer.
    • Generally found on sun-exposed areas such as the face, neck, arms, scalp, backs of the hands, and ears.
    • Cancer can also occur on the lips, inside the mouth, on the genitalia, or anywhere on the body.
    • If left untreated, squamous cell carcinoma can destroy much of the tissue surrounding the tumor and may result in the loss of a nose or ear, for example.
    • Aggressive types of squamous cell carcinomas, especially those on the lips and ears, can spread to the lymph nodes.

More than 700,000 new squamous cell carcinomas are diagnosed every year in the United States. However, both basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are easily treated if detected early.

  • Melanoma
    • The most serious form of skin cancer
    • Characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells
    • Might appear on the skin suddenly without warning, but they also can develop on an existing mole
    • Most frequently appear on the upper back, torso, lower legs, head and neck.

Dictionary definition of melanoma

It is estimated that there will be more than 137,000 new cases of melanoma each year. The best way to detect skin cancer early, when it is most treatable, is to perform a skin self-exam on a regular basis. If you are interested in a skin exam, call Audubon Dermatology at 504-895-3376 to schedule an appointment.

Sarah Jackson, MDDr. Jackson received her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine, where she was a member of AOA honor Medical Society. She also fulfilled her residency training at Louisiana State University Health Science Center where she served as Chief Resident in Dermatology. She is a board-certified Dermatologist with special interest and training in medical dermatology, dermatologic surgery, cosmetic dermatology and laser surgery. she is the Louisiana State Chair of the Dermatology Foundation, the largest foundation of dermatologic research in the country. Dr. Jackson lives in New Orleans, LA with her husband Konrad and their 3 children Adelaide, Henry, and Charles.