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Skin cancer

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From MayoClinic.com

Risk factors

These factors may increase your risk of skin cancer:

  • Fair skin. Having less pigment (melanin) in your skin provides less protection from damaging UV radiation from the sun or from tanning beds. If you have blond or red hair, light-colored eyes, and you freckle or sunburn easily, you're much more likely to develop skin cancer than is a person with darker features.

  • A history of sunburns. A sunburn is your body's attempt to protect itself from the sun's damaging rays. Every time you sunburn your skin, you increase your risk of developing skin cancer. People who've had one or more severe, blistering sunburns as a child or teenager are at increased risk of skin cancer as an adult. Sunburns in adulthood also are a risk factor.

  • Excessive sun exposure. Anyone who spends considerable time in the sun may develop skin cancer. This is especially true if your skin is unprotected by sunscreen or clothing. Tanning also puts you at risk. A tan, like a sunburn, is your skin's injury response after excessive UV radiation.

  • Sunny or high-altitude climates. People who live in sunny, warm climates are exposed to more sunlight than are people who live in colder climates. People who live at higher elevations, where the sunlight is strongest, also are exposed to more UV radiation than those who live at lower elevations.

  • Moles. People who have dysplastic nevi are at increased risk of skin cancer. These moles — which look irregular and are generally larger than normal moles — may be more likely than others to become cancerous. If you have a history of these moles, you and your doctor should watch them regularly for changes. Skin cancer is also more prevalent in people who have a lot of moles.

  • Precancerous skin lesions. Having skin lesions known as actinic keratoses can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. These precancerous skin growths typically appear as rough, scaly, brown-to-dark-pink patches. They're most commonly found on the face, lower arms and hands of fair-skinned individuals whose skin has been sun damaged.

  • A family history of skin cancer. If your parent or sibling has had skin cancer, you may be at increased risk of the disease.

  • A personal history of skin cancer. If you developed skin cancer once, you're at risk of developing it again.

  • A weakened immune system. People with weakened immune systems are at a greater risk of developing skin cancer. This may include those who've undergone an organ transplant and are taking medications that suppress their immune systems or people with chronic blood disorders such as leukemia.

  • Fragile skin. Skin that has been burned or injured from disease is more susceptible to sun damage and skin cancer. Certain psoriasis treatments can increase the risk of skin cancer.

  • Exposure to environmental hazards. Exposure to environmental chemicals, including some herbicides, increases the risk of skin cancer.

Generally, your risk of developing skin cancer increases with age. But skin cancer isn't limited to middle-age and older people. People in their 20s and 30s can develop skin cancer. Signs of skin cancer generally appear after age 50, but the damage to your skin begins much earlier.

Screening and diagnosis

See your doctor if you notice a new skin growth, a bothersome change in your skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn't heal in two weeks. Your doctor may suspect cancer by simply looking at your skin. But to properly diagnose skin cancer, your doctor or dermatologist will need to take a small sample of your skin (biopsy) for analysis in a laboratory. A biopsy can usually be done in a doctor's office after administering a local anesthetic.

Doctors generally divide skin cancer into two stages:

  • Local. In this stage, cancer affects only your skin.

  • Metastatic. In this stage, cancer has spread beyond your skin.

Because superficial skin cancers such as basal cell or squamous cell cancers rarely spread, a biopsy often is the only test needed to determine the cancer stage.

If you have a growth that is very large or has existed for some time, your doctor may conduct further tests to determine whether the cancer has spread. Your doctor may check your lymph nodes in the area and may order additional tests, including X-rays. Knowing whether the cancer has spread will help your doctor plan the best treatment.

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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