Skin cancer, which includes melanoma and non-melanoma cancers, is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas make up the majority of cases.
Basal cell cancers are rarely fatal, and squamous cell cancers are fatal in about 2 percent of patients. But melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, is diagnosed in about 76,000 people each year and accounts for more than 9,700 of the nearly 13,000 skin cancer deaths each year.
“The sun’s UVA and UVB rays are the most common causes of skin cancer, but they are not the only factors,” explains David E. Bank, MD, director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, NY. “Genetic predisposition, certain environmental factors and lifestyle habits can increase cancer risk.”
The best defense is a good offense. That includes knowing how to protect the skin, recognizing the areas of the body where skin cancer can develop and being on the lookout for suspicious changes.
Areas of the Body Where Skin Cancer Can Appear
Since skin cancers are often the result of too much exposure to UV rays, the most commonly areas affected are those that spend the most time in the sun: the face, neck and arms. Some of those spots may be ones you don’t think that much about, and then there are some spots that — despite getting little sun exposure — are surprisingly vulnerable to less common forms of skin cancer.
- Face, neck and arms: These are common areas where skin cancer usually develops. The left side of the face can be particularly vulnerable because it is exposed to sun when driving.
- Ears: Anyone with short hair or who wears hair pulled back from the face (e.g., in a headband or ponytail) leaves the ears exposed, and the ears are often neglected when applying sunscreen. “They are just as delicate as your face and should be treated with the same care,” says Bank.
- Part in hair: “The top of the head is directly exposed to harmful rays every time you’re in the sun,” warns Bank. The part, in particular, doesn’t have the covering of hair as protection. The same applies for any balding areas.
- Eyes: While most melanomas in the eye area are actually in the pigmented tissues in the eye, including the iris, the delicate skin of the eyelids is a common site for non-melanoma skin cancers. Sun exposure can also affect the eyes themselves, causing issues ranging from short term sun blindness to macular degeneration.
- Underneath the nails: Bob Marley died of an aggressive form of melanoma that started with what appeared to be a bruise under his toenail.
- Palms of hands: This is another area that is vulnerable to ALM. Despite not being exposed to the sun very often, the palms of hands can develop this type of skin cancer.
- Feet: Both the soles of feet and the skin between the toes are vulnerable to a type of skin cancer called acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM). “It is relatively uncommon but affects people of color more often and tends to move quickly,” says Bank.
- Backs of legs: This is a common area for women to get melanoma skin cancers. The lesson: Don’t forget all of the skin that’s behind you (that includes not just backs of legs, but also the back, shoulders and backs of arms).
A Dose of Prevention
Since skin cancers are often caused by sun exposure, sun protection is key to preventing the disease. Be sure to wear a broad spectrum sunscreen (meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF 15 or higher every day on all exposed skin, even when driving. For areas that are hard to cover with sunscreen (e.g., the head, eyelids, ears, and upper back), broad-brimmed hats, sun-protective clothing and sunglasses offer the best protection.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone should be performing monthly self-exams of their skin to look for any new lesions, new or changing moles, sores that won’t heal or anything else suspicious.
Once a year, visit your dermatologist for a full-body skin check. If you have a personal or family history of skin cancer, visits should be more frequent. Also, if you find something that you want to bring to your doctor’s attention, schedule an appointment immediately. Skin cancer is most treatable when caught as early as possible.