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This year more than one million people will be diagnosed with skin cancer, the most prevalent type of cancer. And one in five Americans will get skin cancer in the course of his or her lifetime.

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. The first two are slow-growing and easy to treat, but malignant melanoma is a dangerous, fast-growing cancer that spreads very quickly. The incidence of melanoma is rising faster than that of any other cancer.

Risk Factors

The main risk factor for skin cancer is over-exposure to ultraviolet light, from sunlight or tanning beds. A history of sunburns early in life can increase your risk: research shows that one blistering sunburn in childhood more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma later in life. Teens may be especially susceptible to skin cancer because their cells are dividing and changing more rapidly than those of adults.

Having very fair skin that burns easily can increase your risk, as can the presence of a large number of moles on your body. Other risk factors include having had skin cancer before or having close relatives who have had skin cancer. Exposure to radiation or long-term exposure to chemicals such as coal tar, soot, pitch, asphalt, creosote, paraffin wax or arsenic, can increase your risk of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Warning Signs

Melanomas typically change shape or color as they grow. Any spot that changes color or shape should be reported to your doctor. The majority occur on the head, neck, arms and back—the skin most exposed to sunlight. Most are very dark or black, but they can sometimes be lighter brown or even speckled. The surface is usually raised and sometimes rough. They are not normally circular in shape, but some can be nearly circular. In the early stages melanomas often look like moles, but with a ragged outline or different shades of color. They may also bleed or ooze.

The majority of basal cell carcinomas occur on the face, starting as a small, pink, pearly or waxy spot, often circular or oval in shape and growing into a raised, flat spot with a rolled edge. They may also develop a crust. Eventually they will begin to bleed from the center and what is called a rodent ulcer develops. If left long enough, it can become quite large and eat away the skin and tissue below.

Squamous cell carcinomas are most common on the limbs, head and neck. They are pink and irregular in shape, usually with a hard, scaly surface and can sometimes develop into an ulcer. At times the edges are raised and can be tender to the touch.


More than 90% of all skin cancers are caused by sun exposure, yet fewer than 33% of the population routinely uses sun protection. Regular sun protection throughout childhood can reduce the risk of skin cancer by 80%. Because 60% to 80% of the sun’s rays penetrate through clouds, you should protect yourself even when it’s cloudy.

The key is to avoid being in the sun, especially between the hours of 11:00 and 3:00. If you’re going to be in the sun for any length of time, wear a sun block of SPF 30 or higher. Better yet, wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face, neck and ears. Do not use tanning beds or sunlamps. Check your skin every month for signs of skin cancer. If you see an area on your skin that looks unusual, ask your doctor about it.

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