How to Identify and Prevent Skin Cancer in Aging Adults

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with one in five Americans developing skin cancer during their lifetime. Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, and colon combined. Between 40-50% of Americans who live to age 65 will have either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma at least once. Therefore, it is vital to know how to recognize the signs of skin cancer and methods to prevent skin cancer for aging adults.

The Different Types of Skin Cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and malignant melanoma (MM). BCC is the most common type and is rarely fatal, but can be disfiguring if untreated.  It typically appears as a pink non-healing bump or ulcer, which may be scaly, crusted, or bleeding. SCC is the second most common type and has a higher risk of metastasis than BCC, especially in organ transplant patients. It most commonly presents as a red scaly or crusted plaque, which can be tender and rapidly enlarging. MM is the most fatal type, accounting for the majority of skin cancer deaths. It appears as a pigmented brown or black spot that is growing, darkening, asymmetric, or irregularly bordered. Early detection is vital in MM since the prognosis can significantly worsen as the melanoma grows deeper in the skin.

How to Treat Skin Cancer

Treatment of skin cancers typically involves surgical excision once the skin cancer has been biopsied to confirm the diagnosis. However, certain superficial skin cancers may be able to be treated with less invasive measures, such as topical agents or curettage. Non-melanoma skin cancers on the face, ears or other delicate areas are often treated with Mohs surgery to minimize scarring. Melanomas require a wide excision, with potential testing of draining lymph nodes if the melanoma is over a certain depth. Metastatic melanoma requires treatment by an oncologist.

How to Prevent Skin Cancer

The main risk factors for skin cancers include history of sunburns, tanning bed use, fair complexion, family history of skin cancer and multiple moles. Since ultraviolet light is the main risk factor for skin cancer, the most important preventive measures include limiting sun exposure, especially between 10AM and 4PM, and protecting the skin with the use of a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least an SPF 30 on sun exposed areas, a wide brim hat and protective clothing. Sunscreens should be reapplied every two hours and after swimming/sweating. Monthly skin self-examinations are recommended to monitor for any new, changing, or non-healing skin lesions. Finally, routine yearly visits with a dermatologist for a fully body skin examination is important for prevention, early detection and treatment of skin cancers.



Dr. Jane T. Nguyen, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Dermatology Center of Loudoun. Her areas of special interest are skin cancer and pediatric dermatology. She attended the University of Virginia as an Echols Scholar and graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1995. Subsequently, she received her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 and was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society. Dr. Nguyen completed her dermatology residency training at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. During that time, she published numerous scientific articles and presented at several national dermatology meetings. Upon completion of her dermatology training in 2003, Dr. Nguyen remained on the teaching faculty at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania while working in private practice for several years in the Philadelphia area before moving to Northern Virginia where she currently resides.