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How to Identify the 3 Most Common Forms of Skin Cancer

Are you vigilant about sun protection, but still worried about skin cancer? Here’s how to determine whether that bump or mole is harmless — or the sign of something more serious.

Let’s start with the good news: most forms of skin cancer are both preventable and treatable. That said, skin cancer is a veritable epidemic: between 40-50% of Americans will have either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma at least once during their lifetimes, and each year more than 5 million cases of melanoma are diagnosed.

You can prevent skin cancer by wearing a low-SPF sunscreen on a daily basis and by avoiding UV radiation (which is a proven carcinogen). Protection against the sun is especially important if you are fair-skinned or have relatives who have had skin cancer.

Even if you’re wearing sunscreen, avoiding the beach, and skipping the tanning booth, though, it is still possible to develop skin cancer. Here’s what you need to know about the three most common types of skin cancer, and the telltale signs of each.

1. Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer, and develops as a result of overexposure to sun or indoor tanning. This type of skin cancer is most prevalent among those with fair skin (although anyone can get it), and typically appears on the arms, face, or neck. BCC appears as a pinkish patch of skin, similar to a healing scab. It can almost always be successfully treated if diagnosed in the early stages.

2. Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) can be treated successfully if identified in its early stages. The most telling sign of SCC is a sore or red patch that does not heal within a week. It can resemble a mosquito bite, rash, or pimple, but unlike those more easily treatable ailments, SCC won’t improve until you seek professional treatment.

3. Melanoma

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. You are at higher risk for melanoma if you have fair skin, a large number of moles, a relative who has had melanoma, or if you have been exposed to excess sun or UV radiation. These are the ABCDEF’s of gauging whether your mole might have melanoma:

  • Asymmetry – Does your mole look less like a circle and more like an unevenly shaped blob?
  • Borders – Note any irregularities in the symmetry of your mole’s border.
  • Color – Most non-cancerous moles are evenly colored — so if your mole contains a variety of shades, it may be cancerous. Take special note of any changes in the color of your mole, which may suggest that melanoma is developing.
  • Diameter – If your mole is larger than 6mm in diameter, you should have it examined by a dermatologist.
  • Evolution – If your mole is changing over time, this could be a sign of cancer.
  • Funny-Looking – the best rule of thumb is the least scientific: if you feel that any part of your mole is “funny-looking,” you should get it checked out.

The three main things to watch out for are sores that don’t heal or bleed for a long period of time, and noticeable changes in any of the above categories.

As the seasons change, it can be easy to slack on sun protection. But even as you’re soaking up the early fall rays, make sure you’re continuing to protect your skin. If you notice any abnormalities, don’t wait to contact a dermatology professional for a formal diagnosis.

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