Freckle, Mole, or Skin Cancer?

Introduction

Skin cancer becomes a real fear for people who spent a lot of time under the sun in their youth. Maybe you played a lot of sports, or just really enjoyed suntanning and being at the beach. Needless to say, when we are young and optimistic the possibility of cancer is just an illusion that we try not to think about. But as we grow older and approach our mid-thirties and forties, those brown spots and moles that start to pop up begin to worry us and we start to wonder: “Could I possibly have skin cancer?”

Skin cancer is a tricky one because our skin is so volatile. We get spots from just about everything — the sun, hormones, and even injuries or acne. And spots often look very similar, brown round patches on our skin that sometimes fade and sometimes they don’t, or they might be raised to look like a little bump. But when should we start to be worried about skin cancer? It is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer before they reach the age of 70. That’s one-fifth of the population! There’s a pretty high chance of getting skin cancer, so it’s always best to detect early. The good thing is, skin cancer is very much curable as long as you diagnose it early on and stop it from spreading. If you suspect you have some abnormal looking marks of lumps, this is a guide to when you should seek a doctor’s advice and get a strange-looking spot checked out.

What is skin cancer?

Cancer develops when the healthy cells of a person’s body begin to mutate and multiply uncontrollably, creating a mass of cells known as a tumor. Tumors themselves are not necessarily cancerous, sometimes they are benign and do not pose a health risk as they do not spread. However, a malignant cancerous tumor can grow bigger and spread to the rest of the body. Skin cancer is cancer that affects the skin, with the skin cells multiplying and forming tumors. It is not surprising that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, since the skin is our biggest organ. Skin cancer is also largely treatable and diagnosed early on, and it has an average mortality rate of 1%. Less severe cases of skin cancer usually just need some topical treatment or a small surgery to remove the malignant tumor. More serious cases of skin cancer might require radiation therapy or oncology.

What are the types of skin cancer?

Skin cancer is actually the most common cancer type that people get. Most people develop the least serious types of skin cancer which are very treatable. 

Basal cell carcinoma: This type of cancer will show up in the form of marks that resemble scars, bumps, small skin growths, sores, and patches in the areas that usually get the most sun exposure such as your head, the shoulders, and back area. Basal cell carcinoma doesn’t usually spread to the rest of the body, and it is the most common type of cancer with over 4 million people contracting it annually. 

Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous cell carcinoma will show up as patches, skin growths, and sores on smaller parts of the body that also get sun, like on and around the ears and hands. Squamous cell carcinoma is less prevalent than basal cell carcinoma at 1 million cases per year. However, this type of cancer can spread more rapidly to the rest of the body if untreated, and although low, there is a mortality rate associated with this cancer.

These are the top two most common cancer types, but there are also other, more serious cancers that can be more damaging and life-threatening: 

Melanoma: The early signs of melanoma include abnormal-looking moles that can form even in parts of the body that don’t usually get sun exposure, such as the thighs, small of the back, and chest area. Approximately 200,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma annually. It is specifically the growth of the melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells, which is why signs of melanoma often include dark-colored bumps or spots. 

Merkel cell carcinoma: This is a very rare but severe type of skin cancer that affects around 2,500 people a year. Merkel cell carcinoma first occurs as a firm lump in the skin that is painless, and it usually appears on the neck, head, or eyelid area. It is severe due to how rapidly it can spread to the rest of the body as it is aggressive and fast-growing. It starts in the hormone-producing cells that lie just underneath the skin and hair follicles.

What should I look out for?

Skin cancer can look different on everyone, depending on the type of skin cancer and what triggered the cancerous growth. Skin cancer can be both painful and painless, so don’t assume that a growth is not cancerous just because it is not painful. The symptoms of skin cancer can range from moles, growths, discolored patches, spots, and bumps, but these overlap with the signs of non-threatening things like the effects of aging, acne, insect bites, and freckles. 

A simple way to routinely check for potentially malignant skin lesions is to check your skin once or twice a month and observe the areas of your body that do not usually get sun exposure, like your underarms, backside, and in between the toes. If you notice marks in these areas, you might want to consult a doctor. 

With melanoma especially, since it occurs similarly to the effects of aging, sun damage, and freckling, some people might not be able to tell the difference between a mole, sunspot, freckle, and potentially cancerous growth. In these instances, follow this simple ABCDE guide to get a better idea of whether your growth might be cancerous: 

Asymmetry: If you can halve the mole or freckle and they match up, it is symmetrical. Otherwise, it is asymmetrical. Asymmetrical moles are a warning sign. 

Border: If the border of the mole is uneven and bumpy, this is a potential sign of a cancerous one. If it is smooth, it is probably benign. 

Color: If your moles are not a uniform color and occur in a wide range of colors, that is a sign of something more serious.

Diameter: If your mole is bigger than a quarter of an inch, it is potentially cancerous. 

Evolving: If the mole changes in size, shape, and degree of elevation, it is potentially malignant. 

Conclusion

It might be hard to spot skin cancer, or maybe you just have a particularly dark freckle. Whatever the case, do routine checks and if you notice anything out of ordinary, it is best to seek medical advice to diagnose it quickly.

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