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It Might not Be Melanoma, but It’s Still Serious

Non-melanoma skin cancer may not be as likely to kill you as other cancers, but it does increase your risk for developing them. Research from the National Institutes of Health finds that people who have had non-melanoma skin cancer are at increased risk for potentially more serious cancers, including those of the breast, colon, lung and prostate.

If you have ever had basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma, the two main non-melanoma skin cancers (and the most common cancers in the United States and Canada), it is crucial that you are as vigilant about skin cancer checkups as you would be if you’d had melanoma. It also means using sunscreen every day, always wearing protective clothing to reduce your exposure to sunlight and never using tanning beds and lights. (These measures are essential for everyone regardless of their skin cancer history.) In the U.S. alone, more than 419,000 cases of skin cancer linked to indoor tanning are diagnosed every year.

If you are diagnosed with skin cancer of any kind, your increased risk for other cancers may also require you to undergo additional and more frequent screenings. It is important that all of your health care providers are aware of your skin cancer history and that you are in regular discussions with them about these and other preventive measures you may need to take.

What’s Your Risk for Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer?

If you live to age 65, your likelihood for having either basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma at least once is 40-50 percent. Like melanoma, basal cell and squamous cell cancers can be fatal and in fact are responsible for approximately 11,000 deaths every year. However, the bigger threat they pose is the increased risk of getting other cancers. (See October 2015 Lifelines: For Cancer Survivors, Second Cancers a Concern). Fortunately, however, with routine skin checks at home and at least once a year by a dermatologist, basal cell and squamous cell cancers are often found in the early stages and respond well to treatment.

Likely Spots for Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell cancers usually develop on areas exposed to the sun. The head and neck are prime spots, but these cancers can occur anywhere. Basal cell cancers tend to bleed very easily if scratched or nicked by a razor but then don’t heal.

What to Look For:

  • Flat, firm, pale or yellow areas similar to a scar
  • Raised reddish patches that might be itchy
  • Small pink, red or translucent shiny, pearly bumps, which might have blue, brown or black areas
  • Pink growths with raised edges and a lower area in their center, which might contain abnormal blood vessels
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal or that heal and then come back

Likely Spots for Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell cancers often appear on sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face, ear, neck, lip and back of the hands, but can show up anywhere, including the genitals. Squamous cell cancers can also develop in scars and skin sores.

What to Look For:

  • Rough or scaly red patches, which might crust or bleed
  • Raised growths or lumps, sometimes with a lower area in the center
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal or that heal and then come back
  • Wart-like growths

Skin changes caused by basal and squamous cell cancers can also be very slight and difficult for the untrained eye to detect. That’s why even if you don’t see any changes in your skin, it’s important that you always have an annual checkup with a dermatologist.

Your skin protects your heart, liver, lungs and all your other internal organs, cushions your bones and helps keep germs from entering your body. If it’s not healthy, you’re not either. No matter how much sun your skin has been exposed to in the past, it’s never too late for you to start protecting it and reducing your risk not only for skin cancer, but other cancers as well.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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