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Skin Cancer: Dermatologists Explain the Types and Causes


Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the world affecting more than 1.5 million people.

Many people every year suffer from skin cancer of two types — black and white.But the good news is, If detected early, the disease can be cured.

Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer is Rarely Life-Threatening

80% cases reported are of light or white skin cancer also called basal cell carcinoma. Other 20% patients suffer from squamous cell carcinoma which appears as dark or black, according to Klaus Kraywinkel from the Center for Cancer Registry Data (ZfKD) of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany. The light skin cancer, however, does not have metastases — it doesn't spread.

Basal and squamous are the two types of skin tissues.

White skin cancer is rarely life-threatening, with around 1,000 deaths in 200,000 cases. Black skin cancer, also known as malignant melanoma, is more dangerous. Significantly fewer people develop it.

How to Recognize White Skin Cancer

White skin cancer occurs mainly on parts of the body that are particularly exposed to the sun, as the Berlin dermatologist Christian Kors explains. These so-called sun terraces include the:

  • Nose
  • Ears
  • Neck
  • Forehead
  • Hands
  • Cleavage
  • Scalp, especially in bald men

Contrary to what the name might suggest, white skin cancer does not form bright patches. A basal cell carcinoma is usually skin-colored to reddish and nodular or tumor-like. Scaling areas of skin with a border of small nodules are also typical. According to the German Cancer Society (DKG), the tumors can also cause weeping or bleeding.

Squamous cell carcinomas on the other hand, vary greatly in their appearance. They can appear wart-like or resemble weeping ulcers. Skin tumors are often noticeable as ragged, scaly, or crusted patches.

White Skin Cancer

White Skin Cancer

How Black Skin Cancer Manifests Itself

According to the DKG, black skin cancer often develops on the lower legs in women and on the back in men. The appearance of the tumors is not uniform. Flat, nodular, or raised dark, brown, or black spots are common. You can see it in the picture below:

Black Skin Cancer Tumour

Black Skin Cancer Tumour

Risk Factors are Primarily UVA and UVB Rays

The first and most important factor is exposure to the sun. Harmful UVA and UVB rays trigger the disease by causing mutations (changes) in skin cells. Children in particular should therefore be well protected from the sun, because sunburn at a young age leads to a risk of skin cancer in adulthood.

"UV rays are the main cause of black skin cancer," explains the dermatologist. Although radiation is an important factor, it is still only one of several factors, not all of which are known.

Tanning Cult In the 70s and 80s

Medically, the importance of non-melanoma skin cancer has only been known since the 1990s, says dermatologist Kors. In the past there were only sunblocks with a low sun protection factor.

There was a real tan cult in the 1970s and 1980s. People spent hours in the blazing sun, also because skin cancer was not an issue at the time. If sun protection was used, then only in the single digits. With fatal consequences that were only noticed years later. Because skin cancer develops slowly. Today, the danger from solar radiation is greater. People need to consistently use sun protection nowadays because of the climate crisis.

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How to Protect Yourself From Dangerous Sunburn

In order to keep the risk of sunburn and skin cancer low you should observe four basic rules, explains Christoffer Gebhardt, head of the skin tumor center at the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE). Together with other dermatologists, he is committed to more education and awareness about skin tumors. In a guide they gave tips to reduce the risk.

1) Wear full clothes and apply sunscreen before going out

As early as spring, the UV index — the measure of the strength of UV radiation — is so high that prolonged exposure to the sun without sun protection poses a significant health risk. Therefore, for the most effective sun protection, cover as much skin as possible with clothing and apply lotion to exposed skin an hour before going outside. To do this, use a sunscreen with the highest possible sun protection factor (SPF), for example 50, which has both UVA and UVB protection.

2) Apply enough sunscreen and preferably repeat the application four to five times a day

How much sunscreen is enough? For this, the skin experts have a rule of thumb. Simply apply a firm line of sunscreen from the tip of your middle finger to your wrist and use it on a single part of the body, such as the arm or face. Use twice the amount on the abdomen, back and legs.

When applying cream, be sure to also think about areas such as the ears or the parting of the head. “As a result of movement, sweating or abrasion with clothing, the protection of the sunscreen on the areas of the body that have been sunscreened is lost. So don't forget to reapply your sunscreen and ideally apply the sunscreen four to five times a day," the experts say.

3) Avoid direct sunlight between 11am to 3pm

At noon the sun is most aggressive to the skin. Try to seek shade at these times, minimize time spent outdoors, and postpone physical activity until the evening.

4) Get skin cancer screening every year or two

Also important in addition to acute sun protection, for prevention and early detection of possible sources of skin cancer, you should see a dermatologist every two years and have a skin cancer screening done.

Dermatologist Christian Kors even advises applying skin protection with a protection factor of 20 or higher every day regardless of the season. Anyone planning leisure activities outside should also adjust the SPF upwards. The dermatologists recommend protection with SPF 50 or more.


At What Age Does Skin Cancer Appear?

Skin cancer often takes decades to develop. According to the DKG, basal cell carcinoma occurs on average at the age of 60, and patients with squamous cell carcinoma develop at an average age of 70.

The risk of developing black skin cancer also increases with age. According to Klaus Kraywinkel, women contract the disease at an average age of around 60, and men around 67. However, there are also significantly younger patients.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Hamza Hussaini

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