Monday Medical: Keep an eye out for skin cancer
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Editor’s Note: This article is part one of a two-part series. Part two focuses on advancements in skin cancer surgery.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world. By age 70, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer.
“Colorado is an epicenter for skin cancer,” said Dr. Aaron Frye, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center and UCHealth Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Clinic in Fort Collins. “It’s similar to Arizona and Florida, or places with tons of sun exposure and where people are outside a lot. In Colorado, you can be skiing all winter and getting sun all year round.”
Frye and Dr. Jason Sigmon, an otolaryngologist at UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Steamboat Springs, outline what you need to know about skin cancer below.
When cells turn cancerous
Similar to other cancers, skin cancer is a result of cells that begin to act abnormally and grow out of control.
“In skin cancers, these cells have gone wild, and no longer respect their boundaries, causing excess cells that pile up and spread to different parts of the body,” Sigmon said. “The key is to excise this group of misbehaving cells and bring back the other skin cells that are behaving appropriately.”
Cancerous cells should be treated or removed as early as possible, ideally when they haven’t turned into full-fledged cancer.
“A mole starts out with normal cells, but once it becomes melanoma, it’s growing completely out of control. But in between, there’s a phase where it’s starting to act a little funny,” Frye said. “Something could look like a pimple, but if it doesn’t go away or has scabbed over or bled, that could be cancer or a precursor to cancer. Like with any kind of cancer, you want to catch skin cancer as early as you possibly can.”
Finding a pre-skin cancer early means it may be treated by freezing the abnormal cells with liquid nitrogen or using a chemotherapy cream. Once the cancer has developed, it should be removed.
Types of skin cancer
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell cancer are the most common types of skin cancers, and while they aren’t considered aggressive, they’re still best to treat early before the cancer grows deep into the skin.
Melanoma is less common but is more serious as it can spread to other parts of the body. It may first develop in an existing mole or appear as a dark spot.
In most cases, skin cancer is not deadly.
“Most skin cancers are not life threatening and can be managed surgically,” Sigmon said. “The earlier they are managed, the smaller the defect and easier the reconstruction will be.”
Common spots for skin cancer
Skin cancer is most often found on areas of the body that get the most sun.
“Any sun exposed areas are where you’re going to see skin cancer because of that ultraviolet light,” Frye said. “That means anything in the face is most at risk – the tip of the nose, the upper lip, the ears and forehead.”
Preventing skin cancer
Living at high altitude presents extra risk when it comes to skin cancer. With decreased atmospheric pressure comes increased exposure to ultraviolet light, which can cause skin cancer. Always wear sunscreen, stay out of the sun when possible and remember to do regular skin checks.
“If there’s a part of your skin that’s abnormal, or if your skin changes, and it’s not a transient change that goes back to normal, then that certainly needs to be evaluated,” Sigmon said.
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A serious climbing accident, including a forceful twisting and smashing spiral fracture to her right ankle, put Joan Allison Weiss in pain and limited her mobility for almost 20 years.