Column: Skin Cancer Awareness

By Dr. Steven A. Kolenik, III

May is skin cancer awareness month.

More than 5.5 million non-melanoma skin cancers were treated in the U.S. last year in over 3.4 million people. More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined.

Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer with an estimated 4.4 million cases diagnosed each year.  While basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads beyond the skin, it will destroy whatever structures it grows into locally, such as muscle, nerves and bone, if left undiagnosed or untreated.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer with approximately 1.5 million cases diagnosed each year, resulting in about 15,000 deaths.  When left untreated or in its aggressive stages, this form of skin cancer can spread to lymph nodes and internal organs.

Melanoma is the least common but most serious form of skin cancer, with approximately 200,000 new cases diagnosed per year and approximately 8,000 deaths. The majority of people who develop melanoma are white men over the age of 55.  From age 50 on, significantly more men develop melanoma than women (one in 150 women versus one in 215 men).

The estimated cost for treating all forms of skin cancer in the United States last year was over 8 billion dollars.

The vast majority of non-melanoma skin cancers and melanomas are caused by the sun. Regular use of broad-spectrum sunscreens (SPF 15 or higher), reapplied every 90 minutes, combined with sun protective clothing and sun avoidance, can greatly reduce the risk of developing all forms of skin cancer.  The earlier in life one starts to regularly apply sunscreen, the less sun damage the skin will accumulate and the lower the risk of developing skin cancer later in life.  All adults with a significant history of sun exposure, or a family history of skin cancer should have a full body skin exam once a year, as early detection of skin cancer is the key to maximizing the outcome when skin cancer is diagnosed.  The estimated 5 year survival rate for patients whose melanomas are detected early is 98 per cent.  The survival rate falls to 64 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes and 23 percent when it has spread to distant organs.

The treatment of skin cancer varies greatly based on the type of skin cancer, the location, and how advanced the disease is at the time of diagnosis.  Skin cancers in their very earliest stages can sometimes be treated effectively with non-invasive methods using topical creams or a combination of a topical medicine and light therapy.  Most skin cancers are treated surgically with techniques such as excision or Mohs micrographic surgery.  For local skin cancers that cannot be treated surgically, radiation therapy is a safe and effective alternative with a cure rate approaching surgery.  When skin cancer has spread to internal organs, surgery alone may not be effective, and these patients historically have required radiation and/or chemotherapy.

Great strides have been made recently in treating all forms of advanced skin cancer with immunologic agents that can selectively target all 3 common forms of skin cancer. Immunologic agents have shown great promise in shrinking tumors, prolonging survival, and decreasing the side effects associated with traditional chemotherapy.

Connecticut Dermatology Group at 600 West Putnam Ave and 50 Holly Hill Lane is offering free skin cancer screenings to anyone they have not previously seen on Saturday, May 11th from 8 a.m. until Noon. An RSVP is required to 203-810-4151.

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