Though skin cancer is preventable, it’s still the most common cancer in the United States, with one in five people developing the disease during their lifetime. Unfortunately, 5% of skin cancers are the deadliest type: melanoma.
Knowing your risk factors for skin cancer gives you the chance to be proactive with preventive care. Even with a high risk, you can avoid skin cancer by diligently wearing sunscreen or protective clothing and getting regular skin exams.
As a skilled plastic surgeon, Rafael C. Cabrera, MD, FACS, at Plastic Surgery Specialists of Boca Raton has extensive experience treating skin cancer. But he would rather help you prevent the disease, beginning with this list of the top risk factors.
Exposure to UV light is the top cause of skin cancer. It doesn’t matter if you’re outside in the sun or relaxing in a tanning bed — any exposure increases your risk. UV light damages cellular DNA and alters genes that normally prevent tumors. Every time your skin absorbs more UV light, the impact increases.
Getting a severe sunburn anytime in your life boosts your odds of developing skin cancer. In fact, your risk for melanoma doubles if you have one blistering sunburn in childhood or a history of five sunburns.
Your cumulative exposure over the years also makes a difference. The more time you spend in the sun — especially if you don’t wear sunscreen — the more likely you are to have skin cancer later in life.
Melanoma most often begins in an existing mole. The more moles you have, the more likely you are to develop skin cancer, especially if they’re on your face, arms, or other areas frequently exposed to the sun.
UV light gradually alters the DNA in the cells that make up moles. Over time, this causes abnormal growth that leads to skin cancer.
One of the best ways to prevent skin cancer is to be aware of your moles and stay alert for any changes in their size, shape, or color. Signs of cancerous changes include an irregular border, varied colors (rather than a uniform color), and moles where one half looks different than the other.
Moles that are larger than a pencil eraser are also suspicious for cancer. Moles that are large and have an irregular color and shape, called dysplastic moles, are especially worrisome.
Schedule a skin exam anytime you notice a suspicious mole. And if you’re at a high risk, consider getting routine skin exams.
If you already had any type of skin cancer, your chances of developing another skin cancer (any type) significantly increase. For example, an estimated 35%-50% of people treated for basal cell carcinoma develop another new skin cancer within five years.
Your family history has a big influence on all aspects of your health, including skin cancer. Your risk of developing melanoma is 2-3 times higher than average if you have a parent, brother, sister, or child who was diagnosed with the disease.
You can also inherit genetic conditions that increase your risk for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. However, these syndromes are rare.
There are six skin types, ranging from very fair to very dark. The type reflects the amount of pigment in your skin. The amount of pigment determines the way your skin reacts to sunlight. Because fair skin tends to burn easily, it puts you at a higher risk.
People with red hair also have fair skin, but that’s not the only reason they’re skin cancer risk is higher than others. It turns out that the same genetic mutation responsible for red hair, known as the MC1R mutation, also increases the risk for skin cancer, including melanoma.
If you have any questions about skin cancer or concerns about moles or other skin lesions, call Plastic Surgery Specialists of Boca Raton or request an appointment online today.