Skin Cancer Awareness Month: Are You at Risk for Skin Cancer?

Northeast Dermatology Associates woman's skin Skin Cancer Awareness Month: Are You at Risk for Skin Cancer?

Identifying Skin Cancer Risks

Skin cancer can be a dangerous condition when left untreated, and knowing if you’re at risk for it can help you get your guard up. There are many factors that can make your risk of developing skin cancer much higher than others.

Genetic Risks

There are a lot of physical characteristics and genetic factors that can increase a person’s likelihood of developing skin cancer. These factors are truly out of your control, but it’s still important to know whether or not you’re in a higher risk group for the disease. So, what are the physical characteristics that make a person more prone to develop skin cancer?

First, it’s important to know that anyone can develop skin cancer, so not having these characteristics does not exempt you from being aware of skin cancer’s visible symptoms. People with naturally fair skin, often with ancestry in Northern Europe and the British Isles are often more susceptible to skin cancer. Many of these people will experience sunburns or freckles more commonly than others, but regardless of your genetic background, if these are true of your skin, you’re at a higher risk than others. People with blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair, and light skin all are more prone to skin cancer. Some other factors include a family history of skin cancer or a personal history of skin cancer. The risks for developing skin cancer are not only genetic because of these shared physical traits. Much like breast cancer, certain inherited genetic mutations can make a person more prone to develop skin cancer, most notably melanoma. About 5-10% of melanoma cases stem from a person’s genetics.

People who have more than the average number of moles (about 50-100) are more susceptible to developing melanoma. Finally, older age does play a factor in a person’s likelihood of developing skin cancer. It’s estimated that almost 50% of adults who live to age 65 will have had skin cancer at least once in their lives. As we explore environmental contributors to skin cancer, the explanation becomes a bit clearer for why age plays a factor.

Environmental Risks

As you probably know, the cause of skin cancer is sun damage. Ultraviolet radiation in sunlight will damage the skin if it’s left unprotected. This radiation can destroy the DNA that composes your skin’s cells and that is what leads to cancer. When DNA is damaged, it will rebuild itself and during this rebuilding it can possibly mutate. Skin cancer is the result of mutations that cause skin cells to replicate out of control. Your skin’s natural reaction to damage is to increase the production of melanin. This means that a tan is actually a sign that your skin has been damaged. While it’s very unlikely to develop skin cancer after a single bad sunburn, years of sun damage exponentially increase the odds of cancer occurring. It’s for this reason that age plays a factor in developing skin cancer. Using a tanning bed or sunbathing directly contributes to how at-risk a person is for developing skin cancer. As the ozone layer has depleted, we are more at risk than people were less than a century ago. There is less natural ultraviolet protection in the atmosphere in 2020 than there was before the advent of ozone depleting chemicals and aerosols. People who live at a higher elevation or closer to the equator are also more likely to develop skin cancer because of their exposure to sunlight. Places prone to more cloud cover even see less skin cancer because of this fact. That’s not to say nobody in the Pacific Northwest can’t get skin cancer, but their natural exposure to UV light is less than someone living in a place like Central America. There are a few, much rarer environmental factors that can contribute to skin cancer. Frequent exposure to x-rays can put you at risk for many cancers, including skin cancer. Coal and arsenic compounds are also known to cause skin cancer in some instances.

The bottom line is this: everyone is at risk for skin cancer, but some of us are less fortunate in just how at-risk we are. If you want more information on skin cancer and its many risk factors, call your New England dermatologist at Northeast Dermatology Associates.

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