The most common type of cancer diagnosed each year in the United States is skin cancer. Most skin cancers are the result of too much exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet rays. In recent decades people have become aware of the cause and have taken steps to avoid over exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun or from tanning beds and tanning lamps.
There are three types of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of cancer, presents itself as a recurring and sometimes bleeding sore. Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common type of skin cancer, begins in squamous cells (thin, flat cells) that are most commonly found in the tissue on the surface of the skin. Neither of these skin cancers spread to other parts of the body and can generally be successfully treated with surgery, radiation or topical chemotherapy.
Melanoma, which originates from pigment-producing skin cells (melanocytes), is the least common but potentially deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanomas can develop anywhere on the skin, but are often present on areas of the body which receive the most exposure to sunlight. The National Cancer Institute estimates about 87,110 new melanomas were diagnosed in 2017.
Some people are more prone to melanoma than others; those with fare skin tone and high freckle density, red or light-colored hair and those with a family history of the disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 60,000 early deaths occur each year worldwide because of excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. An estimated 48,000 of these deaths are from malignant melanoma. Early detection can be difficult but regular inspections of the skin for alterations in appearance can detect signs of the disease. Look for skin changes, such as a new spot or mole or a change in color, shape, or size of a current spot or mole; a skin sore that fails to heal or becomes sore of painful to the touch, or a lump that looks shiny, waxy, smooth, or pale. Others may bleed or appear ulcerated or crusty to the touch.
Melanomas that are undetected and untreated will spread to other parts of the body and may become life threatening if not caught and treated in the earliest stages. Surgery is often the first approach. Lesions and surrounding tissue are removed, and a biopsy is taken to determine if the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes. In less common cases, chemotherapy or immune therapy is warranted.
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved the drug nivolumab for stage III melanoma. An adjuvant therapy for stage III melanoma, studies have indicated that the immunotherapy delayed recurrence of the disease with fewer side effects. Awny Farajallah, MD, head of U.S. medical oncology for Bristol-Myers Squibb, says, “We’re very excited about the approval of adjuvant nivolumab. To date, 71 to 85 percent of stage III patients will have a recurrence, and this gives us an important additional option to bring those numbers down. Adjuvant therapy is an important part of our efforts to advance cancer treatment through immuno-oncology, with the ultimate goal of providing a potential cure.”
As with all cancers, lessening exposure to the risk factors is the best plan of action. Avoid sun burns. Wear clothing that protects exposed areas of the body. Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 20-30 and a 4 or 5-star UV rating. If you have a job that exposes you to constant sunlight, take all available precautions to minimize your exposure.