Understanding the risks of skin cancer

As the weather gets nice and you begin to spend more time outdoors, it’s important to keep the health of your skin in mind. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world today, with more than 3.5 million skin cancer cases diagnosed each year — that’s more than the incidence of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined.

Skin cancer can affect anyone at any age. Understanding it and what you should watch for is key.

Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers

These are the most common forms of skin cancer. They generally show up in sun-exposed areas on the body, such as your face, arms and legs. Squamous cell cancers look like a crusty patch that you may think is a scab or a scrape that does not heal. Basal cell cancers look more raised and smooth, and may be pink or pearly white. You may also mistake them for a small injury or abrasion that does not go away.

Dermatologists can easily identify these types of cancers. Cell cancers rarely spread anywhere else in the body. Your doctor will typically treat them by either surgically removing the cells or using a topical treatment.


Melanoma is a relatively rare type of skin cancer, but it is the most dangerous. It has the potential to spread to other parts of the body and can be deadly. This cancer develops when pigment-producing skin cells, called melanocytes, begin to grow and form a tumor, which can eventually spread. Most melanomas develop from a mole or look like a new mole. Exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning beds is a major risk factor for the disease, along with family history.

Through treatment, doctors can cure about 80 percent of melanoma skin cancers. Like squamous and basal cell skin cancers, your doctor may remove the spot and then usually check nearby lymph nodes.

What Should You Watch For?

When it comes to monitoring your moles, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you know the ABCDE rule:

  • A for Asymmetry — One half of the mole is different from the other half.
  • B for Border Irregularity — The edges are notched, uneven or blurred.
  • C for Color — The color is uneven. Shades of brown, tan and black are present.
  • D for Diameter — The diameter is greater than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser).
  • E for Evolving —There is change in size, color or shape over time, or additional symptoms like itching or bleeding start.

Examine your skin every month. Check for moles on every part of your body — from your scalp to the bottoms of your feet and even under your fingernails. If you see any moles that concern you, or if you have a mole that itches, hurts or bleeds, talk with your doctor.

Protect Yourself

Skin cancers are related to sun exposure. You should remember that it may not be the sunburn from your last vacation, but rather the repeated exposure to sun over the years that can affect your risk of getting skin cancer.

It’s important to protect yourself from the sun when you are outdoors. Seek shade from 10 am to 4 pm and wear a wide-brimmed hat, UV-blocking sunglasses and protective clothing. Apply UV-blocking sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to all exposed skin every two hours.

Most skin cancers are easily treatable, and highly curable, when caught early.


Glenn Gibson, MDGlen R. Gibson, MD, is a surgical oncologist with Anne Arundel Medical Center Surgical Oncology. His office can be reached at 443-481-3717

Originally published May 22, 2017. Last updated April 8, 2019.

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