27 Skin Cancer Facts Doctors Wish You Knew About
When it comes to skin cancer, what you don't know can hurt you.
Each day in the United States, more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. By age 70, one in five Americans has been diagnosed with some form of the disease. And with cases of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—on the rise, there’s no time like the present to get your facts straight when it comes to this all-too-common ailment. From how bad tanning beds really are to which medical conditions can affect your risk, here’s everything you need to know about skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the single most commonly diagnosed type of cancer.
Breast cancer may have more publicity, but skin cancer is actually more common. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in the United States. The organization reports that approximately 5 million cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year, with melanoma accounting for close to 96,480 of those diagnoses.
Some types of skin cancer may look like scars at first.
Think that new scar on your chest is no big deal? Think again. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, basal cell carcinoma often presents initially as a brownish scar or lesion, so if you notice a change in your skin, it’s time to get to the doctor.
Smoking can increase your skin cancer risk.
Smoking isn’t just bad news for your lungs: it’s a major risk factor when it comes to skin cancer, too. According to the American Cancer Society, smoking cigarettes is a major risk factor for the development of squamous cell carcinoma on the lips.
Not putting on sunscreen as a kid can increase your skin cancer risk as an adult.
Playing it fast and loose with your sunscreen application as a kid can have dire consequences as you age. According to a study published in the May 2014 edition of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, having five blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 may increase a person’s risk of melanoma by as much as 80 percent.
The death rate from skin cancer is shrinking.
With increased sunscreen use and more education about skin cancer prevention, the number of deaths due to melanoma is shrinking rapidly. Between 2007 and 2016, the mortality rate for the condition was reduced by approximately 2 percent each year in individuals 50 and older. For those under 50, the death rate was reduced by nearly 4 percent each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Almost every kind of skin cancer is the result of sun exposure.
Want to reduce your risk of skin cancer? The single best thing you can do is to practice safety in the sun. A landmark 1996 review of research published in JAMA Dermatology concluded that a staggering 90 percent of skin cancer diagnoses, excluding melanoma, could be attributed to sun exposure. What’s more, research published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2018 reveals that 75.7 percent of new melanoma cases were directly attributable to UV radiation, as well.
Drinking frequently can increase your skin cancer risk.
You might want to think twice before indulging in that drink. According to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, both white wine and liquor consumption were positively associated with an increased risk of basal cell carcinoma in both men and women.
A weak immune system could make your skin cancer risk skyrocket.
Whether you’re dealing with an autoimmune disease or other immune-system-depleting condition, a weak immune system can make your skin cancer risk soar. A 2014 study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology reveals that organ transplant recipients, who typically have weaker immune systems, were at 10 times the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma when compared to a control population, and had 65 times the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma.
Your hair color may increase your melanoma risk.
Redheads may be rare, but skin cancer diagnoses among the redhead population aren’t. According to a 2017 study published in Nature, redheads exhibit variants in the Melanocortin 1 Receptor (MC1R)—a protein associated with pigmentation throughout the body—which can increase their skin cancer risk.
Sudden itching could be a surprising sign of cancer.
There are a lot of scary conditions and pests that might spring to mind when your skin starts to itch—Chickenpox! Bed bugs! Mosquitos!—but there’s one that you should be even more worried about: skin cancer. According to a 2014 study published in JAMA Dermatology, 37 percent of people studied with skin cancer had itching as one of their symptoms.
Certain skin conditions may reduce your skin cancer risk.
Vitiligo—a condition in which portions of the skin lose their pigmentation and develop a whitish hue—may actually reduce a person’s skin cancer risk. A 2010 study published in the journal Genome Medicine reveals that those with vitiligo may specifically be at lower risk for developing malignant melanoma.
Skin cancer can increase your risk of all-cause mortality.
Skin cancer can increase your risk of death—and not just from cancer itself. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, squamous cell carcinoma was associated with a 25 percent increase in all-cause mortality.
Using a higher SPF can help reduce your cancer risk.
Think that SPF 50+ is going to keep your skin safe? Try doubling it. According to a study published in the May 2018 volume of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, SPF 100+ was significantly more effective than its double-digit counterpart.
Tanning can increase your risk of developing skin cancer by more than two-thirds.
You know that tanning is bad for your skin, but just how bad it is may surprise you. According to a 2014 study published in JAMA Dermatology, indoor tanning increased a person’s risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent and their risk of developing basal cell carcinoma by 29 percent.
Shiny makeup can increase your skin cancer risk.
You might just want to thank your lucky stars you’ve been wearing matte lipstick for so long. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, something as seemingly-innocuous as wearing shiny lipstick can actually increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
Melanoma has a surprisingly high survival rate—if detected early.
While a melanoma diagnosis may be terrifying, this type of cancer actually has a high survival rate if it’s caught in its early stages—and why it’s so important to get an annual full-body check from your dermatologist.
According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2019, if the melanoma has not yet spread to a person’s lymph nodes, the survival rate at 5 years is 99 percent. On average, the melanoma survival rate between 2008 and 2014 was 94 percent across races—from 1975 to 1977, however, it was just 82 percent.
Most people with melanoma don’t have many moles.
Though it makes sense that people with lots of moles might have a larger risk of developing melanoma, the opposite is actually true. According to a 2016 study published in JAMA Dermatology, most of the patients studied with melanoma had few or no moles.
Sunglasses are an essential tool in your skin cancer prevention kit.
Sunglasses are more than just a fashion statement. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, opting for a pair that blocks 99 percent of UVA and UVB light can keep your eyes—a surprisingly common location for skin cancer—safe when you’re out and about. You'll also want to make sure you’re putting sunscreen on your eyelids, too.
While rare, invasive melanoma accounts for the most skin cancer deaths.
While melanoma caught early is highly survivable, that doesn’t mean it’s not a scary diagnosis. The good news? Just 1 percent of skin cancer cases are invasive melanoma. The bad news? The condition has the greatest mortality rate of any type of skin cancer.
Certain medications may increase your risk of melanoma.
If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, you might want to try treating that high blood pressure with diet and exercise before looking into medication—or you could be putting yourself at risk for another potentially serious disease. In a 2018 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that taking blood pressure medication hydrochlorothiazide was associated with an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma.
An HPV diagnosis may cause your skin cancer risk to increase.
While 79 million Americans are living with HPV, as per the CDC, it’s not just cervical cancer that those affected need to watch out for. Certain strains of the virus may increase your skin cancer risk. According to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, HPV was associated with a greater risk of both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
You need to wear sunscreen even when you’re inside.
Think you’re safe from the sun just because you’re in your car? Think again. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 53 percent of skin cancer is discovered on the left side of the body—the side closer to the window (and therefore, the sunlight) when you’re driving.
People of color are more likely to die of melanoma than non-POC.
While skin cancer is less frequently diagnosed among people with darker complexions, that doesn’t mean POC are safe from the condition. A study published in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that while people of color were less likely to develop melanoma, they were more likely to die from it, likely because the disease is frequently caught later among those with darker skin.
Specific cancer therapies may increase your skin cancer risk.
Unfair though it may be, treatment for certain types of cancer may actually increase your risk of skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, areas of the body that have previously undergone radiation therapy are often at greater risk for the development of skin cancer later on.
Certain careers can increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
Your job is hard enough as it is—and some careers may even increase your cancer risk. According to a 2018 study published in JAMA Dermatology, firefighters may be at an increased risk for developing melanoma than the general population, and the firefighters studied developed the disease earlier—at 42 versus 64—than the average adult.
People with blue eyes have a higher skin cancer risk.
It’s not just red hair that may make you more prone to developing skin cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that having blue or green eyes puts a person at an increased risk of developing the condition, too.
Your family history can increase your skin cancer risk.
While many people assume that skin cancer is linked solely to lifestyle factors, that’s not the case. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, up to 10 percent of melanoma cases are diagnosed in families in which another member has had the condition. And for more cancer-prevention tips, check out these 40 Ways to Prevent Breast Cancer After 40.
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