The month of May signals the midpoint of spring and the sunny days that beckon all of us outdoors. It’s also Skin Cancer Awareness Month and National Cancer Research Month, and that makes it a great time not only to protect your skin from damaging sun exposure, but also to investigate new treatment options for patients diagnosed with skin cancer.
The anatomy of skin
Your skin’s mostly made up of two layers: the epidermis on the outside and the dermis underneath it. When skin cancer appears in the epidermis, it’s typically named after one of three types of cells. Thin, flat squamous cells make up the outermost surface of the skin, with a layer of round basal cells underneath them. At the bottom of the epidermis, melanocytes produce the pigment that in turn creates skin color. When you expose your skin to the sun, the melanocytes crank out more pigment, making your skin appear darker. Specific types of cancer appear in these structural elements of the skin, with melanoma being the deadliest of the three.
Skin cancer risks
You’ve probably heard that the primary risk factor for skin cancer development comes from natural or artificial sunlight. If you’re fair skinned, tend to sunburn rather tan, or have light-colored eyes and hair, you’re at greater risk than people with darker skin. Likewise, your risk factors rise if you’ve had lots of sunburns, come from a family with a history of skin cancers or have had it yourself, have had radiation therapy, have a weakened immune system, or show signs of long-lasting skin inflammation. Cumulative sun exposure increases with age, as does the risk of developing skin cancer.
To spot skin cancer, watch for sores that won’t heal, raised areas of the skin that look shiny or like a scar, unusual moles, growths that get bigger or change in appearance, roughness, scaliness, bleeding, or crustiness.
Exploring non-surgical options
Most skin cancer treatment focuses on surgery to remove abnormal cells. New research suggests that a type of radiation also might be effective, especially for older adults with basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma on the head or neck.
High dose rate brachytherapy uses radiation directed specifically at cancerous areas, typically in the esophagus, cervix, prostate or breast. The term “brachytherapy” comes from two ancient Greek words meaning “not far away” and “healing,” signaling its use of radioactive sources placed close to the treatment area. To treat skin cancer, brachytherapy might provide a targeted solution in less time and with fewer side effects.
Although some research results showed high cure rates for brachytherapy, cancer researchers urge caution in interpreting these statistics without comparisons to surgery and other treatments, and without a large study population in a randomized trial. Additionally, like any new research, these studies need follow-up to determine how patients fare four years after treatment, a traditional interval to screen for disease recurrence.
Hope for melanoma patients
Melanoma can metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body. Until recently, the only treatment options available to melanoma patients included surgery, chemotherapy, and drug therapy to minimize tumor spread. Unfortunately, these options offered only about a 10% survival rate five years after treatment.
Genetic research has added critical knowledge to the understanding of melanoma and targeted immunotherapies to the treatments available for these patients. These therapies enlist the body’s built-in defenses against disease, and can offer results even for people with advanced melanoma. Other genetic research suggests that cancer vaccines may be effective, and offers new tests that evaluate the likelihood that a patient’s cancer will spread or return. Of course, not all melanomas respond to current immunotherapies, which are developed to treat cancers with specific genetic profiles. New research continues to expand the ability to treat various types of melanoma.
Start with a pound of prevention
Even with new treatments available or on the horizon, the best way to treat skin cancer is to prevent it. Too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation serves as a real risk factor, whether the UV comes from the sun or a tanning bed. In fact, the combination of skin protection and common sense can go a long way toward the goal of staying safe from skin cancer.
Stay out of the sun during the peak exposure period from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Apply an effective sunblock and protect your eyes with suitable sunglasses. And if you really want a tan, investigate the growing list of sunless tanning products that can produce the sunny look of summer without the damaging UV radiation.
Want to know more about cancer care? The Sun Ann Wortman Cancer Center at Hancock Regional Hospital in Greenfield in nationally accredited by the Commission on Cancer, a quality program of the American College of Surgeons. Find out more about how we can help you.