At the sound of the word “cancer,” most people completely freak out. Which is understandable, considering the danger of most cancers.
But there’s one cancer that doesn’t have the serious life-or-death ramifications of other cancers. Not only is this cancer not aggressive, but it’s also relatively easy to treat.
I’m talking about skin cancer—the non-melanoma kind.
Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the U.S., amounting to half of all cancers diagnosed each year.
Non-melanoma skin cancer is any type of skin cancer except melanoma– melanoma is the aggressive one.
Non-melanoma skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), both named for the cells from which they start. To understand these cancers, you first have to understand your skin, which has three layers:
- Epidermis – the outermost layer. Forms a barrier to protect against UV radiation, chemicals, bacteria, and viruses.
- Dermis – the next layer down. Contains connective tissues, hair follicles, and sweat glands.
- Hypodermis – the deepest layer. Consists of fat and connective tissue.
BCC starts in the basal, or round, cells in the epidermis. SCC starts within the flat cells of the epidermis. There are other types of non-melanoma cancers, but these are the two biggies.
Are BCC and SCC actually dangerous?
Of course, whenever you hear the word “cancer,” the “gotta know” question is, “Is it curable?”
And what’s great is, in the case of non-melanoma skin cancer, the answer is usually, “yes.”
Basal cell carcinoma is slow growing and the least dangerous form of skin cancer. It rarely spreads to internal organs. But if ignored for a long time, it can cause ulcers and skin or tissue damage.
Squamous cell carcinoma is most dangerous when found on the face, lips, ears, or neck. There’s a chance it could spread to the lymph nodes and internal organs, albeit a pretty remote chance.
Skin cancer treatment and recovery plan
Should you get non-melanoma cancer, the typical treatment is physical removal of all the cancer.
There are several ways to do this. Typically, they’ll numb your skin, then cut out the cancer while you’re awake. This simple in-office surgery almost always takes care of non-melanoma skin cancer.
If you’ve had non-melanoma skin cancer, your doctor will tell you to stay out of the sun and get a whole body check every six months.
What causes skin cancer?
The most common risk factor for non-melanoma skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
UV-B rays are often blamed for skin cancer. But newer research suggests that UV-A plays a role in both BCC and SCC, as well as melanoma. Even more concerning, UV-A can pass through glass.
The biggest risk comes from severe sunburns – especially in childhood. What’s interesting is that childhood burns have a link to BCC, while sunburns in the decade preceding cancer diagnosis correlate to development of SCC.
According to Oncolink.org, over 90 percent of skin cancer patients had no risk factors other than excess sun exposure.
There are numerous studies that show people living at high altitudes or in sunny areas have an increased risk of skin cancer. On the flip-side, people living in colder, cloudier climates tend to suffer from vitamin D deficiency and are at increased risk of cancer of all kinds. People with vitamin D levels below 40 are at higher risk for cancer and have lower survival rates for all aggressive types of cancer.
So we live in an imperfect world. If you never get any sun, you may avoid skin cancer but your lack of vitamin D, which your body makes with the help of the sun, will leave you at risk for nearly every other cancer. The answer is to seek moderate sun exposure – less than it takes to burn. Even if you don’t “burn,” but your skin gets darker, you’ve had too much sun.
Other risk factors – how many do you have?
Other factors may increase your risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancer. They include:
- Having lighter colored skin, eyes, and hair (including red hair), and freckles– or a tendency to burn in the sun.
- Indoor tanning.
- Toxin exposure – especially arsenic.
- Personal history of atypical moles.
- Personal or family history of skin cancer. Repeat incidence is high for those who’ve already had skin cancer.
- Weakened immune system. Especially from bone marrow/stem cell/organ transplants, HIV/AIDS, leukemia, or immunosuppressive drugs.
- Chronic non-healing wounds.
- HPV infection – especially if this results in a compromised immune system.
- Age – skin damage is cumulative, so people over 50 are at higher risk.
Preventing skin cancer
The American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Dermatology recommend avoiding sun exposure in an effort to prevent skin cancer. Their advice: wear a long-sleeve shirt and hat, limit swimming to early or late in the day, and apply sunscreen.
But not everyone is on board with these recommendations. For example, some scientists point to the dangers of chemical sunscreens.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) discussed a recent FDA test showing that sunscreen chemicals were measurable in users’ blood after one single use. Many were also detected in breast milk and urine.
Active ingredients are either mineral or chemical UV filters designed to keep harmful rays off your skin. Most common are chemical filters, often some combination of oxybenzone, avobenzone, actisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
There’s a whole laundry list of suspected hazards from these ingredients. Here are EWG’s guidelines for safe sunscreens:
- Avoid oxybenzone, vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), and added insect repellent.
- Avoid sprays, powders, and SPFs over 50.
- Look for mineral suncreens with zinc oxide, avobenzone, and Mexoryl SX.
- Look for creams, broad-spectrum protection, water-resistant, and SPF 15 to 50.
Other scientists take issue with the recommendation to “avoid the sun.” That’s because when you do, you might be missing out on important health benefits.
I don’t use sunscreens myself. I just limit my exposure to the sun so that I reap the benefit of vitamin D but don’t incur skin damage.”
Health benefits of the sun
Recent studies link lack of sun exposure to adverse health effects such as other cancers, M.S., diabetes, heart disease, autism, Alzheimer’s, and age-related macular degeneration.1
Plus, sun exposure does more than produce vitamin D. It also produces nitric oxide, which is important for heart health, as well as dopamine, beta-endorphins, and other immune-active substances.
The sun also imparts cis-urocanic acid, which generates glutamate in your brain and enhances learning (at least in mice).2
Researchers concluded that non-burning UV exposure offers natural health benefits, and thus is a good thing in moderation.3 In other words, give yourself some “unprotected” time in the sun and I say “unprotected” because SPF 10 sunscreen blocks 90 percent of UV rays!
Also, it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for spots and moles that don’t heal within four weeks—they could be cancer. If you find one, get it checked out by a medical professional right away.