Skin cancer signs and symptoms: From melanoma to carcinoma
With skin cancer rates soaring in recent years, now expected to climb even further, it's important to know the signs and symptoms of the condition.
Rates of melanoma alone have increased by around a third (32%) in the UK in the last decade, according to Cancer Research UK. The condition rose by more than a quarter (27%) in females, and nearly two-fifths (38%) in males between 2016-2018.
And now that hotter summers are well and truly among us, experts have warned that warmer temperatures from the climate crisis may fuel a further increase in skin cancers due to us spending more time in the sun and being exposed to greater UV radiation.
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Melanoma is thought to be the most serious type of skin cancer, while 'non-melanoma' skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).
While you probably know the basics, like the fact that you need to slap on the sunscreen, check your moles for any suspicious changes and not to spend too much time sunbathing or using sun beds, there's a lot more to being skin cancer savvy than that.
Skin cancer signs and symptoms
Finding skin cancer early saves lives. FACT. “Melanoma detected and removed early is almost always curable,” says Doctify rated Consultant Dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto.
“If caught late, there is a much higher chance of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. The 5-year survival rate is 95% for early, stage 1, disease compared to about 16% for late, stage 4, disease.”
“The skin is the largest and most visible organ of the body so often any changes or new moles will be overtly visible unlike cancer of an internal organ. This means that if more people know what to look for, we should be able to detect more melanomas at an early stage,” Dr Mahto adds.
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How to examine your moles
Most dermatologists recommend skin self-exam on a monthly basis.
“Look closely at your entire body including the scalp, buttocks and genitalia, palms and soles including the spaces between the fingers and toes. Use the ABCDE rules and see your doctor about any concerns,” advises Dr Mahto.
What to look for
The acronym ABCDE can be extremely helpful in evaluating moles. If a mole shows any of these features, it warrants review by a GP or dermatologist to exclude melanoma.
Asymmetry: one half of the mole is different to the other
Border: irregular, scalloped or poorly defined edge
Colour: uneven colour or variable colours within a mole
Diameter: the mole is bigger than 6mm in size
Evolving: the mole is changing in its size, shape or colour
Other signs to look out for include any new moles, a mole that looks significantly different to the others (known as the ugly duckling sign), or any skin lesion that bleeds or fails to heal.
But a changing mole doesn’t necessarily equal skin cancer. “Changing moles do not always represent skin cancer and most moles are usually harmless,” Dr Mahto explains. “It can be normal for moles to change in number and appearance; some can also disappear over time. Hormonal changes during puberty and pregnancy can cause moles to increase in number and become darker.”
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Different types of skin cancer
Dr Nicole Chiang, consultant dermatologist at BMI Beaumont and Highfield hospitals in Lancashire, explains that there are three main types of skin cancers:
Basal cell carcinoma
BCC is also called Rodent ulcers. It starts in the cells lining the bottom of the epidermis (outer layer of skin) and accounts for about 75 in every 100 skin cancers, according to the NHS.
“This is the most common type, usually appear on sun-exposed areas such as face, back (due to excessive sun exposure in the past in fair skinned individuals). Thankfully, this type of skin cancer is not life-threatening, but it can cause a sore that is slow to heal, and eventually break down to form an ulcer,” she adds.
Key features include:
red spots or marks that persist for months (whereas an acne spot or infected hair follicle usually goes away within a month), very gradually enlarging
sometimes, they bleeds intermittently, or the skin breaks to form a sore that is not healing
Squamous cell carcinoma
SCC starts in the cells lining the top of the epidermis and accounts for about 20 in every 100 skin cancers, according to the health service.
“This type of skin cancer is related to excessive sun exposure, it can spread to local lymph nodes. Look out for a rapidly growing red spot, which usually has some crusts on the surface, can bleed and become painful,” Dr Chiang explains.
Both BCC and SCC can sometimes cause considerable skin damage if not treated.
“This is the most serious type of skin cancer,” explains Dr Chiang. “Intermittent intense sun exposure is a risk factor.”
Melanoma can arise from an existing mole, or come from a completely new mole. “People who have a family history of melanoma are at higher risk (9 times higher) of getting a melanoma than those without a family history,” Dr Chiang adds.
But while exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays is a leading cause of skin cancer, you’re not necessarily risk-free just because you didn’t spend your youth frying yourself with baby oil or having a perma-tan of the sun bed variety.
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Skin cancer risk factors
Sunburn: We all know it, burning is bad when it comes to skin cancer, but according to Dr Mahto, a person’s risk of melanoma doubles if they have had more than five sunburns
Outdoor hobbies and occupation
Tanning bed use
Family history of melanoma: Approximately 10% of people with melanoma will have a family member with the disease
Lots of moles
Immunosuppression: “Often forgotten about, but a compromised immune systems as a result of chemotherapy, organ transplant, lymphoma or HIV/AIDS can increase the risk of melanoma,” Dr Mahto explains
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How to reduce your risk of skin cancer
It seems the two most important things we can do is avoid sun exposure or at least limit it, according to Dr Mervyn Patterson, Woodford Medical.
“The worst time of the day when the sun is at its most intense in the UK is between 11am and 3pm. So this is the perfect time to have a long lunch inside or at least in the shade.”
And don’t be thinking dull days mean you can ditch the sun screen. “SPF 15 or above should be worn every day and all year. UV rays can penetrate through cloud and glass so even days that are not as bright require some sort of protection,” Dr Patterson adds.
Other sun-safe tips from Dr Mahto include:
Sunscreen – this should be broad spectrum containing protection against UVA and UVB and a factor of at least 15-30 should be recommended. This needs to be applied at least 30 minutes before going outdoors and reapplied every 2 hours for maximum benefit
Seek shade particularly between 11am to 4pm
Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
Wear protective loose cotton clothing over the arms and legs
Try not to use tanning beds
See a GP as soon as possible if you notice any changes in your moles or freckles or have any skin abnormality. While it is unlikely to be cancer, it is always worth getting checked early.