Dr. Peter Beitsch is a privately practicing Dallas oncology surgeon who specializes in treating skin and breast cancer. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma, and attended the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. Among other accolades, Dr. Beitsch has received the Department of General Surgery Scholastic Award three times, as well as the “Caring Spirit” award from the American Cancer Society.
Here Dr. Beitsch answers some of the most commonly-asked questions about preventing and identifying skin cancer:
If I’m performing a self-check, how do I know if something needs to be checked out by a doctor? How quickly could skin cancer develop from these spots?
There are three main types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Squamous cell cancers often look like a a growing bump that may have a rough, scaly surface and flat reddish patches. The bump is usually located on the face, ears, neck, hands or arms, but they may occur on other areas. A sore that does not heal can also be a sign of squamous cell cancer.
Basal cell cancers are typically a flesh-colored, wart-like, pearly, smooth, non-scaly papule (bump).
Melanomas typically are brown to black with irregular margins and nodularity (bumpiness), but they can vary in color from red to white to bluish-black. Remember the ABCDs of melanoma: asymmetry, borders (irregular), color (variation within the same lesion) and diameter (growing larger).
Any change in an existing wart, mole or other skin lesion should be examined by a health care professional. A good website to learn about skin cancer is http://skincancer.about.com/
I’ve heard it only takes one sunburn to develop skin cancer. Is that true?
The theory regarding the development of melanoma is that it is caused by intermittent sun burn(s) early in life, but chronic sun exposure can also lead to melanoma. It is the UV radiation (particularly UVA, which penetrates deeper into the skin to where the melanocytes live) that causes the DNA damage that leads to melanoma and other skin cancers.
If I have fair skin, does that put me more at risk than other skin types? What about age ranges and genders?
Fair skin with poor ability to tan with UV exposure is a risk factor for melanoma. Melanoma is a cancer that can occur at all ages, but it tends to increase with age (like most cancers). There are no gender differences in getting melanoma, but women will do better than men for the same stage of melanoma.
What are the dangers of tanning beds?
It is UV exposure that leads to melanoma and other skin cancers and tanning beds provide a short, intense exposure to UVA and UVB rays. There is a strong move to ban their use for children under 18, and they have already been banned in some countries.
There are so many different sunscreens and SPF levels. How do I know which one to use?
Blocking the UV waves (both A and B) is important. Sun Protection Factor (or SPF) is a measure of the amount of protection provided by the spray or lotion, but know that there is no real advantage to a sunscreen with an SPF over 50. Be sure to check that your sunscreen blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
What are your favorite sunscreen products?
Banana Boat and Neutrogena are my favorites. The thing to remember when going to the lake or a pool is to apply protection 20 minutes before going out and to reapply every few hours (more if you are getting in and out of the water). Be sun sensible—wear a hat and shirt if you can. Sit in the shade when possible. Don’t forget that reflected light can also burn you. Sunglasses are also important for preventing damage to your eyes and early cataracts.
If I get a sunburn, what actions should I take?
Cool compresses (wash cloths), lidocaine spays and aloe vera lotions can all help relieve the symptoms of a sunburn. Ice can help a smaller area, but it is difficult to ice down large parts of the body. It is important to apply moisturizing lotion several times per day.