Cancer is a much dreaded medical condition. The words death and cancer are sometimes closely associated with each other. Although mankind has progressed to a point that he can cure a very sick person dying of cancer, in many cases cancer can be a death sentence that comes too quickly. The patient and family members are caught unaware. The devastating loss of a loved one coupled with the expensive medical care is a very unpleasant experience. It is therefore important to take heed of a recent trend, the alarmingly increasing cases of skin cancer in the United States. Two things must be made clear about it. Skin cancer is lethal but it is curable. It is also very common. Skin Cancer is one of the most common of all cancers, therefore, society needs to know the risks involved and must be better educated when it comes to preventative measures.
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There are many different types of cancer affecting various internal organs or systems such as cancer of bone, stomach, pancreas, liver etc. But overall, among all ages, it is a skin cancer that is the most commonly occurring in the United States (Buckmaster, p. 8). Every year there is an estimated 1.3 million cases of skin cancer reported in the U.S. and that means that the number of diagnosed cases of skin cancer is more than all of the other kinds of cancer combined (Buckmaster, p. 8). This is indeed an alarming trend.
The reason for the high incidence of skin cancer can be attributed to the fact that the skin is the largest organ of the body. Thus, there is more surface area that can go wrong especially if the skin is subjected to external forces that is harmful to skin cells. It is important to understand why there is a high incidence of skin cancer in America. It is a country dominated by Caucasians – people who have fairer skin. The reason for this phenomenon can be explained by the presence of melanocytes, these are skin cells that produce melanin, which in turn is a substance that gives skin color (Buckmaster, p. 10). The darker the skin the more melanin it contains (Buckmaster, p. 10). Thus, white-skinned people have less melanin but just like any other normal people Caucasians with fairer skin love to go to the beach, do sunbathing, and play outdoors, exposing their skin to the harmful radiation coming from the sun. Ultra-violet rays or UV are one of the chief causes of skin cancer.
The two most common form of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma that are both cancers of epithelial cells (Cohen, p. 652). Squamous cell carcinoma can be observed as a painless but firm red nodule or plaque that may evolve into a form that has surface scales or ulceration (Cohen, p. 652). Basal cell carcinoma on the other hand is the most common form and more than 75 percent of all skin cancers are basal cell types (Cohen, p. 652). It will appear as smooth pearly papule (Cohen, p. 652). While skin cancer is common and can be very painful and destructive the good thing about this medical problem is the fact that it can be seen from the outside. Unlike cancerous invading internal organs and the person can suffer for months without knowing the real reason for the pain and discomfort, skin cancer patients on the other hand can immediately go to their doctor and get treatment.
Causes of Skin Cancer
There are at least three major causes of skin cancer. It would be best, to begin with, the least known: human papillomavirus (“HPV”). For many years, doctors have known the link between HPV and non-melanoma skin cancer but they could not pinpoint the exact reason why this occurs. But lately, researchers were able to determine reason why. They found out that a protein in HPV causes skin cells to invade underlying tissue (Damania & Pipas, p. 115). The culprit is a protein found in HPV called E7. (Damania & Pipas, p. 115). The E7 protein can sabotage the tumor suppressors found in cells as well as transform cells through biochemical mechanisms (Damania & Pipas, p. 115). The best preventive measure is to request for specialist care when a person is diagnosed with HPV. Since, this medical breakthrough, patients can now be forewarned that being infected with HPV can lead to non-melanoma skin cancer.
While skin cancer that will arise from HPV rarely occurs, the second most important cause of skin cancer that requires attention is genetic predisposition. According to medical experts, there are certain physical characteristics, such as fair skin, red or blond hair, inability to tan, and a freckling phenotype that can be linked to an increased risk for melanoma. But the more tangible proof that genetic disposition is a factor was traced to the diminished ability of the epidermis to respond to UV damage (Reichrath, p. 253). This is due to certain pigment regulating gene called melanocortin-1 receptor or MCIR (Reichrath, p. 253).
Aside from the said pigment regulating gene, there is also the rare hereditary syndrome called xeroderma pigmentosum or XP (Reichrath, p. 253). Those who have XP, “…carry a nucleotide excision DNA repair defect” that can result in acute photosensitivity and as a result, the person can develop multiple skin cancers (Reichrath, p. 253). There is no easy way to find out if a person carries this genetic predisposition or that someone suffers from XP. The best way to deal with this problem is to find out if skin cancer is common in the family. If this is the case then it would be wise to request a medical check-up to find out in advance if a person is predisposed to this type of cancer.
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The most common cause of cancer is exposure to sunlight, specifically ultra-violet rays. But there is more to sunlight than what the naked eye can see. In fact the UV rays that causes cancer is invisible to the naked eye. There are two kinds of UV rays: a) UVA and b) UVB (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). These two can be differentiated by their wavelength. A UVA is between 400-320 nanometers while a UVB is between 320-290 nanometers (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). Both types of UV light can penetrate the atmosphere and has been known to cause premature skin aging, eye damage, and skin cancers. As of recent times, there was a common belief that UVB is the chief cause of skin cancer because of the way it damages the epidermis but scientists are now convinced that both types of UV rays can cause skin cancer. Although UVA is less intense than UVB it is prevalent throughout the day and constitutes 95 percent of the UV radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). UVA is the main light used for tanning (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). This is the reason why it is now imperative to observe preventive measures all throughout the day and not just during times when the sun shines the brightest.
While UVA is present all throughout the day, UVB occurs between 10AM and 4PM in between April to October – the times of the year when it is best to go out and play outdoors and expose the body to the sun for tanning or for work purposes. The UVB is known to be the chief cause of skin reddening and sunburn and damage to the epidermal layers (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). Those who live in high altitudes and work near reflective surfaces are prone to skin damage from UVB (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). The aforementioned two common forms of skin cancers – squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma are caused by the mutation-causing effects of sunlight’s UV rays (Cohen, p. 652). It is important to find out the mechanism that can bring about skin cancer.
UVA and UVB rays damage skin cells. They specifically damage DNA and induces repair (Ruddon, p. 43). While the repair process was initiated there is a risk of errors and this can lead to mutation and then to cancer. Thus as the skin is repeatedly damaged as in the case with people who continue to expose their skin and those who love to get a tan, the cycle of repair, recovery, and damage goes on and on. As mentioned earlier, the process can be repeated and every time DNA was damaged and repaired the chances of error increase. For those who cannot efficiently repair the damage to skin, the risks are higher and they are more prone to skin cancer than others (Ruddon, p. 44). There is therefore the need to take extra precaution when it comes to sun exposure.
It has been proven that ultraviolet light coming from high-pressure sunlamps in most tanning salons produces 12 times more UVA than the sun (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). This is the reason why those who frequently visit tanning salons are prone to skin cancer. They are 1.5 times more likely to develop skin cancer (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). One way to prevent skin cancer from occurring is to avoid going to tanning salons. Another way is to limit exposure by using appropriate clothes to cover exposed skin. Some clothes were designed to have a higher ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) and by using these types of shirts one can be assured that only a limited amount of UV rays can penetrate the skin (Skin Cancer Foundation, p. 1). Hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen can help too.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States of America. But it is also a form of cancer that is preventable because the common cause is exposure to ultraviolet rays, specifically UVA and UVB. There used to be an erroneous belief that UVB is the only light spectrum that can damage the skin. Now, it has been proven that even UVA, the type used in tanning salons can also cause cancer. Thus, the best way to prevent skin cancer is protect the skin from exposure to UVB and UVA. This means that fair-skinned people must reduce time spent in tanning salons and if possible they should not go there at all. If they love to go to the beach during summertime then it would be best to use clothing that has high UPF. If this is not possible and they need to expose their skin then it would be best to use sunscreen for optimum protection. While UV rays are the main culprit it would be wise to examine other factors such as HPV and certain genetic predisposition to skin cancer, especially those who cannot efficiently repair damage skin that was exposed to sunlight.
As wise men say, prevention is better than cure. Americans, especially Caucasians must end their love affair with tanning salons and sunbathing knowing that their skin type is prone to damage and mutation when exposed to the sun. They must do everything they can to protect exposed skin by either using clothes with ultraviolet ray protection or use creams that will help their skin combat the harmful effects of the sun. Skin cancer is indeed common but this can be prevented if Americans will be better educated to the major causes of skin cancer and learn about preventive measures.
Buckmaster, Marjorie. Skin Cancer. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2008.
Cohen, Barbara. Medical Terminology: An Illustrated Guide. PA: Wolters Kluwer Health, 2008.
Damania, Blossom & James Pipas. DNA Tumor Viruses. New York: Springer, 2009.
Reichrath, Jorg. Sunlight, Vitamin D and Skin Cancer. New York: Springer, 2008.
Ruddon, Raymond. Cancer Biology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Skin Cancer Foundation. Understanding UVA and UVB. 2009. Web.