Efforts increase to prevent skin cancer
By Janelle Walker For The Courier-News April 14, 2013 3:38PM
Beverly Neuber of Winfield watches as Elgin dermatologist Dr. Suleman Bangash examines the skin on her husband Melden's head Thursday at Mohs Surgery in Elgin. Bangash checks patients skin, looking for any signs of potentially cancerous spots on their exposed skin. April 11, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 16, 2013 6:07AM
ELGIN — Skin cancer is the most commonly reported cancer in the U.S., and its numbers are continuing to grow.
Each year, 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed with some type of skin cancer — “more than all of the other cancers” combined, according to Elgin dermatologist Dr. Suleman Bangash.
“One in five Americans will develop some kind of skin cancer” over their lifetimes, Bangash told a group of area residents at a talk last week sponsored by Sherman Hospital in Elgin.
After the talk, Bangash even checked the people who attended, looking for any signs of potentially cancerous spots on their exposed skin.
Monthly body checks are a way for people to make sure cancerous spots are found early, he said.
Skin cancer is very treatable, and often curable, when found in its early stages, Bangash said
“We have high skin cancer cure rates if caught early. If allowed to spread, it can be a deadly and a very devastating disease,” he said.
There are three kinds of skin cancer — basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma, Bangash explained.
Basal cell is rarely deadly but will continue to spread across the affected area, eating away at healthy tissue. There are nearly 2 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
Squamous cell will, occasionally, metastasize and can be deadly, too. There are 700,000 of those cases diagnosed annually in this country.
Melanoma, he said, if left untreated, likely will kill. Patients with Stage IV melanoma have five-year survival rates of just 15 to 20 percent, he said. Each year, 12,000 people in the U.S. die of melanoma.
Who’s at risk
People who have light complexions — light skin and blonde or red hair — or who are of northern European descent are at higher risk to develop skin cancer. So are people who work and recreate out in the sun for long periods, or over their lifetimes, according to Bangash.
“Also, family history is another risk factor,” he said. “If you have a family history of skin cancer, it is good to get a baseline skin exam. If you have a personal history of extensive sun exposure, get an exam.”
There was a time when skin cancer was found more often in older adults — those over age 65, Bangash said. But he’s had patients in their 30s and 40s with skin cancer as well.
He’s even had two patients in their 20s with melanoma — likely tied to tanning bed use, Bangash said.
Anyone who has had a blistering sunburn, even when they are younger, can be a candidate for skin cancer.
“If you have gotten a lot of sunlight in you lifetime, that is a risk factor for skin cancer,” he said.
Skin cancer has been known to start with a pre-existing mole. That is why it is good to know your body, know your moles, and know if they have changed over time, he said.
“The idea is, if you know your moles and spots, you know if something has changed,” Bangash said. “I recommend, once a month, look in a full-body mirror. Examine your face, chest, arms, legs, back — be familiar with the spots you have. Therefore, if it were to change, you can recognize it. If it has been there for life, then it doubles in size, you will know.”
He teaches the ABCDE’s of mole checks:
Asymmetry: One half of the mole doesn’t equal the other.
Border: It is ragged and irregular.
Color: There is more than one color to the mole.
Diameter: It is larger than a pencil head eraser.
Evolution: A change in the shape, size or color of a mole or skin spot can be a sign of skin cancer.
Skin cancer often presents as a spot that won’t heal, that grows, or that causes burning and itching, Bangash said.
When those are found on the face or neck — in cosmetic places — he performs a Mohs surgery. Named after the doctor who invented it, Mohs surgeries are done in the doctor’s office. The cancerous area is sliced away one layer at a time and looked at under a microscope. As soon as no more cancerous cells are found, the doctor stops cutting. Patients are left with little scarring, Bangash said.
If on another spot on the body, the cancerous cells can also be cut out.
For melanoma, other surgery may follow excising the growth, including removal of lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread, he said. If it has, other treatment including radiation and chemotherapy could be the next steps.
The American Cancer Society recommends the “Slip, Slap, Slop” approach to skin cancer prevention — slip on a long-sleeved shirt, slap on a hat, and slop on sunblock.
Some clothing now comes with built-in sunblock, Bangash said. But just wearing a sunblock, and reapplying every few hours, helps block out the damaging ultraviolet rays that cause skin damage, he said.
People can and should still be active outdoors, he said, but they also need to be smart about it.
“Use safe sun practices. Be careful when you are out in the sun. We don’t want people to avoid the sun; we want people to be active and enjoy their lives and what they like to do. But cover up with clothes, a hat, and use sunscreen on exposed skin, and reapply every couple of hours.
“While our culture sees a tan as attractive or healthy, people need to be aware” of the damage they could be causing, he said.