With one in five Americans developing skin cancer by age 70, it’s imperative to know your skin cancer risk and watch for early warning signs. Growing up spending summers in the sun can take a toll later in life.
“It’s really an epidemic that’s on the rise,” notes Dr. Vishal Patel, Assistant Professor of Dermatology and Director of Cutaneous Oncology at The George Washington University Cancer Center. “Just from the host of things we do, the way we live our lives and vacation and grow up in the sun, we’re realizing that we have a larger number of patients who are going to have problems with skin cancer down the line.”
Get to Know the Skin You’re In
Annual dermatology check-ups are a step in the right direction for arresting skin cancer early. However, this annual glance doesn’t easily track skin changes that occur over the span of 12 months. “We need your help to self-monitor, be sun protective, and have partners that can look at you and identify lesions that are new and different,” advises Dr. Patel.
If something on your skin looks unusual, bleeds, or irritates you, it’s time to see the dermatologist. When examining your skin spots, it’s handy to remember the ABCDEs of melanoma.
- A: asymmetry with one side larger than the other
- B: borders are not well-defined
- C: color varies in one lesion or appears to be red, white or blue
- D: diameter is larger than a pencil eraser
- E: evolving over time
It’s also important to have a partner or friend check areas on your body that are harder to examine by yourself.
Sun exposure increases risk for skin cancer, but genetic components also come into play in terms of one’s susceptibility. For example, MCR1 is responsible for red hair and is associated with melanoma. Blue eyes and light skin mean higher risk for more types of cancer and more aggressive cancers.
Immunosuppressed patients also have higher risk. Medications for psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and organ and stem cell transplants modulate the immune system. “Our immune system is constantly working to prevent skin cancers from forming, since we’re walking around getting hit by UV rays all day long,” notes Dr. Patel. “When medications suppress the immune system, those UV rays have a greater chance at causing skin cancer.”
Escalating Treatment as Necessary
Skin cancers that are caught very early can often be addressed by the dermatologist alone. However, cancers in greater stages may need additional experts to treat the cancer.
Biopsies are conducted to help with staging and guide treatment. CAT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds and PET scans are prescribed as needed.
Dr. Joseph Goodman is a head and neck surgeon specializing in surgical oncology of the head and neck with functional reconstruction. “The head and neck surgeon typically gets involved at a point where we’re worried about it spreading to the lymph nodes,” he explains. “We can sample the lymph nodes through a variety of techniques. This helps drive treatment decisions and determines whether further surgery or reconstruction will be needed.”
“What we’re trying to do here at GW, Dr. Goodman and myself, is approach these patients from a very strategic and systemic way,” shares Dr. Patel. “With proper staging from the beginning, we can get them into the head and neck surgeon, get them a lymph node biopsy early on to help prevent those poor outcomes, and treat them so they can get the best chance for a cure the first time around.”
Schedule an Appointment
Click to schedule an appointment with one of our dermatologists or call (202) 741-2600.
Listen to the Podcast
To listen to an interview with Dr. Vishal Patel, Assistant Professor of Dermatology and Director of Cutaneous Oncology at the GW Cancer Center, and Dr. Joseph Goodman, who specializes in head and neck surgery, specifically surgical oncology of the head and neck with functional reconstruction: