Skin Cancer: The Importance of Prevention and Early Detection

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with more cases diagnosed each year than all other cancers combined. Although most cases are due to excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, some skin cancers are also caused by artificial sources, like tanning beds. Fortunately, skin cancer is largely preventable and can be treated effectively when caught early. 

Understanding Skin Cancer

Skin cancer originates in skin cells and is categorized into three main types: basal cell skin cancers, squamous cell skin cancers, and melanomas. 

Basal and squamous cell cancers are the most common types of skin cancer and are primarily linked to sun exposure. They’re usually found in areas of the body that are more exposed to UV rays, such as the head and neck. Unlike other types of skin cancers, they’re less likely to spread and become life-threatening. However, it’s still very important to treat them early because as they grow, they can potentially cause disfigurement, scarring, or even a loss of function in areas like the nose, throat, or other parts of the body. In some cases, they can be fatal. 

Melanomas are malignant tumors that develop from melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing the pigment that gives skin its color. Melanocytes can also form non-cancerous growths called nevi, commonly known as moles. Melanomas can develop anywhere on the body, but they’re most commonly found on the trunk (chest and back) in men and the legs in women. It’s also common for melanomas to develop on the neck and face. 

Although melanomas aren’t as common as basal and squamous cell skin cancers, they’re a more serious concern. Melanomas can often be cured in the early stages; left unaddressed, they’re more likely to spread to other parts of the body and can be challenging to treat. 

While there are other types of skin cancers, they occur much less frequently and only account for less than 1% of all skin cancer cases combined. These include:

  • Merkel cell carcinoma
  • Kaposi sarcoma
  • Cutaneous lymphoma
  • Skin adnexal tumors
  • Various other types of sarcomas

It’s essential for skin cancer to be diagnosed correctly because each type requires different approaches to treatment. Likewise, it’s important for patients to know how to recognize the appearance of skin cancers because early detection plays a vital role in successful treatment. 

Skin Cancer Risk Factors

The most significant risk factor for most skin cancers is excessive exposure to UV light, which primarily comes from the sun. Tanning lamps and beds are also significant sources of UV light. UV rays harm the DNA of skin cells; when genes that control the growth of cells are affected, the cells can develop into skin cancer. There are two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. Even though UVB is the larger culprit when it comes to skin cancer, neither type of UV light is considered safe. 

The amount of UV exposure a person receives on any given day depends on the intensity of the rays, how long the skin was exposed, and whether the skin was protected by clothing or sunscreen. Living in regions that experience year-round, intense sunlight and spending substantial time outdoors without protective clothing and sunscreen increases the risk of skin cancer. There’s also a correlation between experiencing frequent sunburns as a child and a higher risk of specific skin cancers as an adult. Exposure to UV rays also increases the risk of cataracts and other eye problems. 

Other risk factors include:

  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • A family history of skin cancer, especially melanoma
  • Many moles, or large or irregular moles
  • Freckles and a tendency to burn rather than tan
  • Fair skin
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond, red, or light brown hair
  • Living or vacationing at high altitudes
  • Intense sun exposure on the weekends only
  • Spending a lot of time in natural or artificial sunlight, like tanning beds
  • Certain autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Certain inherited conditions, such as nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome and xeroderma pigmentosum 
  • Medical conditions that weaken your immune system, like HIV
  • Organ transplants
  • Medication that makes you sensitive to light
  • A history of radiation treatments
  • Actinic keratosis
  • Exposure to arsenic

If you have any of the above risk factors, it’s vital to take precautions to protect your skin while spending time outdoors. 

Tips for Preventing Skin Cancer

Despite the prevalence of skin cancer, there are many things you can do to protect your skin from damaging UV rays and reduce your risk:

  • Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher whenever you spend time outside—even on overcast days. Make sure to cover exposed skin, including often-overlooked areas like hands, feet, and the back of the neck. Reapply the sunscreen every two hours or after you’ve been swimming.
  • Avoid spending time in the sun between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm, when its rays are strongest. A good rule of thumb is to look at your shadow; if it’s shorter than you, find shade. 
  • Wear clothing that protects your skin, such as lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants or long skirts, sunglasses with UV protection, and a wide-brimmed hat. 
  • Avoid tanning beds and lamps; if you want to appear tan, consider using a self-tanning product with sunscreen. 
  • Be extra cautious near water, sand, and snow because the reflected UV rays can increase the chances of getting a sunburn. 
  • Perform monthly skin self-exams in well-lit areas to detect any suspicious changes, moles, or new spots on your skin. If you see anything concerning, have it examined by a medical professional. 
  • Schedule regular skin exams with your doctor if you’re at higher risk or have a history of skin cancer.

How to Perform a Self-Exam

To perform a skin self-exam, stand in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror, paying close attention to moles, blemishes, freckles, and other features on your skin. For hard-to-see areas like the backs of your thighs or your scalp, use a handheld mirror or ask your partner or a close family to help you. Take note of how your skin looks so you can identify any changes during your next self-exam. 

Skin cancer can look different depending on the type; if you notice any of the following signs, schedule an appointment with your doctor:

  • Asymmetrical (one side doesn’t match the other) moles or birthmarks
  • Spots that are irregular, notched, or blurred edges
  • Spots that are larger than ¼ inch
  • Moles that change size, shape, or color
  • Flat, firm, pale, or yellow areas resembling scars.
  • Raised reddish patches that might be itchy.
  • Small translucent, shiny, pearly bumps in pink or red, possibly with blue, brown, or black areas.
  • Growths with raised edges that are lower in the center
  • Open sores that don’t heal or keep coming back.
  • Rough or scaly red patches that may crust or bleed.
  • Wart-like growths.

Not all skin cancers appear this way. It’s also important to talk to your doctor about:

  • New spots on your skin.
  • Spots that look different from others on your body.
  • Sores that don’t heal.
  • Redness or swelling beyond the border of a mole.
  • Color that spreads from a spot’s border into the surrounding skin.
  • Itching, pain, or tenderness that doesn’t go away or keeps returning.
  • Changes in a mole’s surface, such as oozing, scaliness, bleeding, or the appearance of a lump or bump.

Get Personalized, Holistic Care 

Whether you’re concerned about a change in your skin or want personalized recommendations on how to reduce your risk of skin cancer, Dr. Jennifer Hubert provides personalized holistic care to help you lead a healthier life. We take the whole person into account, not just the symptoms. 

Our team takes pride in truly knowing our patients and building strong doctor-patient relationships. Disease prevention and early detection are at the forefront of our concierge medical practice, and we utilize cutting-edge diagnostic tests to tailor proactive wellness plans to your individual needs. Contact our Santa Rosa office today at (707) 380-1838 or email us at