A Growing Epidemic
Recently, the National Cancer Institute reported that the overall cancer mortality in the United States has been slowly declining since 2006. Breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer have seen a reduction in number of deaths; however, melanoma—the most lethal form of skin cancer is continually on the rise. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) reports that more than 1.3 million Americans will be diagnosed with a form of skin cancer this year alone. They further report that melanoma skin cancer kills more women in their 20s and 30s than any other cancer—even exceeding lung and breast cancer, which were once considered to be the two most common cancer-related deaths for women in 2005. To bring this issue into more stark perspective, melanoma skin cancer incidence in the United States has increased by more than 6,000% in the past century, according to the both the AAD; every hour someone in the United States succumbs to melanoma skin cancer.
Before we examine why the skin cancer rate is increasing by near epidemic proportions in the U.S., and abroad, we must first understand what skin cancer is; how it develops, the different types, the signs and symptoms, including risk factors.
As mentioned in a previous article, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of mutated, abnormal, and immature cells in the body. Therefore, simply put, skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of immature cells in the skin.
Skin Cancer Basics
That said, there are three basic types of skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma—the deadliest form. Basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, refers to the location from which the lesion derives. In other words, the encyclopedic definition of basal cell carcinoma is a cancer that originates in a layer of skin (the basal layer) beneath the epidermis (the top, uppermost layer). Basal cell carcinomas are typically seen as a raised nodule, much like a wart or a lump, or even as reddish scaly sore. Basal cell carcinomas may also have a glossy, pearl-like tone to them.1 While basal cell carcinomas seldom metastasize (spread), they can, if left untreated, spread to the lymph or blood vessels. Fortunately, basal cell carcinoma is 90-95% treatable if caught and treated while in its early stages.
The second most common form of skin cancer is, as mentioned earlier, squamous cell carcinoma. Akin to basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma originates from epithelial tissue (a sheet of closely packed tissue that lines both external and internal bodily organs). Squamous cells are flat and often overlapping; they compose the epidermis and line certain internal cavities such as the mouth. Like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinomas usually appear on areas of the body that have been [over] exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and tanning beds. Common areas for a squamous cell carcinoma to appear include the face (nose, inside/outside of the mouth), scalp, neck, ears, chest, hands, and legs. In rare instances, squamous cell carcinoma can be found in other parts of the body that are typically not exposed to UV rays (i.e., the prostate or vagina). Yet, in nearly all instances, squamous cell carcinoma appears as the result of prolonged, over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
You will notice that squamous cell carcinoma looks much like a sore. A persistent sore that will not heal after four or more weeks may be indicative of a possible squamous cell carcinoma. When in doubt, consult a board certified dermatologist. When properly treated, in its early stages, the cure rate for squamous cell carcinoma is approximately 90%. However, squamous cell carcinomas left untreated may spread to the lymph nodes and other surrounding areas, perhaps even becoming a malignant melanoma - an aggressive, and potentially lethal form of cancer.
Melanoma skin cancer may be the rarest form, but it is the most dangerous and lethal form of skin cancer. Whereas, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas share similar characteristics, melanoma is in a class by itself. It is an entirely separate form of skin cancer. Melanoma is also unique in comparison to other cancers in myriad ways. This is largely due to its particularly aggressive nature. In fact, more than 85% of skin cancer-related deaths are due to melanoma.
Once uncommon, melanoma kills more women in their 20s and 30s than any other form of cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. In fact, we have seen a 10% increase in melanoma incidence since 2006. It is estimated that 105,750 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year alone, with more than 8,000 of those resulting in death. In other words, melanoma kills another American every hour.
Deadly, but Preventable
Despite these staggering statistics, melanoma – like other skin cancers – is largely preventable. Because more than 90% of skin cancers are caused by prolonged over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and tanning beds, it is preventable. Yet, melanoma is a very serious, even potentially deadly form of cancer.
So as to provide you with a clearer understanding of what melanoma is, let us dissect it. If we cut word melanoma in half, we have two separate words – mela and noma. The root mela comes from the word melanocytes, which are cells in the skin (located beneath the epidermis) that are responsible for producing pigmentation. The latter half of the term – noma – comes from the word carcinoma, which is a term referring to cancers of the body's external tissues and organs such as the skin. In fact, skin is the largest bodily organ!
Contrary to popular belief, melanoma is not a disease restricted to individuals with fair skin. Anyone with skin is at-risk for melanoma. While it is true that fair-skinned persons are at higher risk for melanoma skin cancer (Caucasian-Americans are 20 times more likely than African Americans to develop melanoma), melanoma is not a respecter of persons. In fact, popular Jamaican Reggae singer Bob Marley died of malignant melanoma, at age 36. So, simply put, anyone can get melanoma. Hence, it is imperative that we are proactive about protecting our skin from over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation, and are equally proactive about monthly self-skin exams and annual visits to the dermatologist.
To learn more, check out ONLY SKIN DEEP? An Essential Guide to Effective Skin Cancer Programs and Resources. (Revised, Special edition due out soon!)
Copyright. Danielle M. White, The Cancer Crusaders Organization 2005-2008.