The American Academy of Dermatology’s guide to suspicious moles

Summer is here and that means fun in the sun with family and friends. Skin protection is important for everyone, and we all know the importance of wearing sunblock. But seniors are at special risk for sun damage, and sunblock is only the start. Sunglasses, hats, protective clothing and a SPF 30 minimum are the tools in your loved one’s ‘safe summer’ tool kit, especially between 10am and 4pm. In a city like ‘Sun’ Diego, those UV rays are inescapable, and caretakers and homecare companions need to know what skin cancer looks like, and why skin protection is so important.

Every year, almost 5 million Americans are treated for skin cancer, and there are more cases of skin cancer diagnosed than cases of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined. Ready to put on sunblock yet? Someone dies of melanoma every 57 minutes, even though melanoma only accounts for 2% of all skin cancer cases. Older people may think that if they haven’t developed skin cancer ‘by now’, then they’re probably not going to get it at all. Unfortunately, the skin damage humans sustain in a lifetime is cumulative, and your ‘vintage’ loved one’s skin has very likely collected a lot of damage over the years. Older skin is thinner, with less fat and water content, which allows the UV light to penetrate the skin more deeply, and age impairs the body’s natural ability to fix UV-damaged DNA on its own. The more abnormal cells sun exposure produces, the more likely a precancerous growth will develop into skin cancer. Doctors don’t know what the trigger point is, but they suspect that even one bad senior sunburn can push damage into cancer. Protection, and regular visits to the dermatologist, are crucial to staying safe indoors and out.

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Basal cells, squamous cells and melanocytes all form the top layer of skin called the epidermis, and they grow, divide and replace themselves like all the other cells in the body. But cancer, tumors or growths develop when the growth cycle runs amok, and cells multiply out of control. When abnormal cells grow wildly in the epidermis, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma is the result. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are very common in people of all ages, are rarely life-threatening, and are often called non-melanoma skin cancers or keratinocyte cancers. Most basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can be cured if found and treated early, so regular dermatology exams are important. There are several common risk factors for developing basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma:

  • prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, whether outdoors or under tanning lamps
  • heavy sun exposure as a child, especially severe sunburns
  • fair skin, since melanin in the skin is a natural protector against UV radiation
  • older age in general, due to the cumulative effects of sun exposure
  • gender: men are 2 times as likely as women to have basal cell cancers and about 3 times as likely as women to have squamous cell cancers
  • weakened immune system: immune-suppressant drugs for transplant patients also suppress the body’s natural response to abnormal skin cell growth

The American Academy of Dermatology ‘How-To’ Spot Skin Cancer

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common, and squamous cell carcinoma is the second-most common, form of skin cancer, and about 90 percent of these non-melanoma skin cancers are directly connected to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. The argument for sunblock, sunglasses, sun hats, and SPF-clothing is clear, no matter what your age.

Melanoma is less common but more serious than other types of skin cancer. Like basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma results from the uncontrolled growth of a type of cell in the epidermis: melanocytes. But melanocytes are present in the skin, eyes, mouth and gastrointestinal tract, and melanoma can develop in those locations too. Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer, but it can often be treated effectively, if caught early enough. Doctors don’t know exactly what causes melanoma, but the risk factors are the same as for basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. In addition, a family history of melanoma is also a factor, as 10% of people with melanoma have a close relative with the disease. Also, a person who’s had a melanoma before has a higher probability of recurrence.

They say ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ and in the case of sunblock, that’s definitely true. Being proactive for yourself and your loved in the summertime – and all year round in San Diego – is the best way to avoid the most common and yet preventable forms of cancer. Prevention and sun protection technology are making an impact, too, since the average survival with melanoma has increased since the early 1950’s from 49 percent to 91 percent today. Regular visits to the dermatologist, self-exams of moles, and being sun-smart are the best ways that caregivers and home companions can help seniors care for themselves and their skin.