Skin cancer – when the sun is bad news for your skin

Cancer usually develops when a cell starts to multiply abnormally. This can happen anywhere in the body, including in our skin. There are many types of skin cancer, each of which is associated with a specific type of cell.

Cancer that starts in basal skin cells is called basal-cell carcinoma (BCC). This is the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for about 75 percent of skin cancers. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) begins in our keratinocytes (cells that produce keratin) and represents about 20 percent of skin cancer cases. These two types of skin cancer are usually easy to treat because they don’t tend to metastasize (spread to other areas of the body).

Melanoma starts in skin melanocytes, a type of cell that makes melanin, which is the pigment that gives our skin its colour. It is rarer than BCC and SCC, but since it tends to spread to other parts of the body, it can be much more dangerous.

Many factors can increase a person’s risk of eventually getting skin cancer, but the most important one remains exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds. Individuals with pale skin, hair or eyes are at greater risk of developing melanoma, especially if they had a lot of sunburns when they were young.

As with all types of cancer, the odds of a cure are greater if the cancer is detected early, before it spreads to other parts of the body. It is therefore important to be vigilant and to regularly check your skin for any unusual skin lesions. Keep a particularly watchful eye on your beauty marks; if you notice any change in shape, colour, size or thickness, consult your physician.

Prevention is key, so reduce your risk of skin cancer by protecting your skin: apply sunscreen each time you spend time outdoors, and avoid sun exposure between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the UV index is at its highest. Don’t forget that one sunscreen application does not protect all day! Depending on the type of activity you are doing, additional applications will probably be necessary in order to protect your skin. Also make sure to follow the directions on the label.

For more information on skin cancer, visit the website of the Canadian Cancer Society.

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