Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, affecting nearly one in five individuals. Sadly, my practice frequently involves reconstructive surgery following the removal of skin cancer.
Treatment of skin cancer begins with you! Once a month, it is important to do a self-exam of your own skin, moles and blemishes. Intuition may tell you to check more often, but checking once a month will make it easier to see if a spot has undergone a change and needs to be examined by your doctor.
The next component of skin cancer treatment and prevention is a regular visit to your primary care provider. Any concerning areas should be shown to them; they will be able to tell you if a mole or skin growth has suspicious characteristics and needs to be evaluated by a dermatologist. In general, you should consider having a skin check by your primary care doctor once a year. If there is a family history of skin cancer or melanoma, or you, personally, have had skin cancer, more frequent checks may be necessary.
There are many different types of skin cancer, some of which can be life-threatening. To protect your health, it is essential to catch skin cancer early. What skin-lesion and mole characteristics should cause concern? The acronym is simple: ABCDE.
A. Asymmetry – One side of the lesion is not like the other side.
B. Border – The border of the lesion is irregular or poorly defined.
C. Color – There is no certain color that is worse than another. However, if one lesion has multiple colors (shades of tan, black, brown), this may be a reason for concern.
D. Diameter – If the diameter of a lesion is more than 6 mm (or larger than a pencil eraser), this may be a worrisome lesion.
E. Evolving – If you have one mole that looks different from the rest, or appears to have changed, have a doctor look at it.
In the event that skin cancer is diagnosed, there are a variety of treatments that range from topical creams to cryotherapy (“freezing” the lesion with liquid nitrogen) to removing the lesion surgically. The treatment depends on the type of cancer that is diagnosed and where it’s located. A dermatologist will be able to counsel you regarding the best course of action.
In the event that skin cancer is surgically removed and the area is large or in a highly visible location, like the face or neck, reconstruction may be performed by a plastic surgeon. Reconstructive plastic surgery can repair and camouflage skin cancer excision wounds. Each patient and treatment is different. The area may be reconstructed using other tissue around the area (commonly referred to as a local flap) or with skin from somewhere else on the body (a skin graft). More complex reconstructions also exist depending on the needs of the patient. As a plastic surgeon, my goal is to perform a successful reconstruction that matches your native skin as closely as possible.
Of course, no treatment is better than prevention. The leading cause of skin cancer is UV radiation from the sun. When outside, apply a sun screen of SPF 30+ every two hours, wear hats and clothing that cover your skin and greatly limit your amount of exposure to the sun during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you have a lesion you’re concerned about, call your doctor and have it examined.