Alphabet Soup of Skin Cancer (Part 1)

As each month represents certain causes, May is skin cancer/melanoma awareness month. I believe living in or even visiting our sunny state warrants the need for education, so I would like to describe the warning signs for skin cancer. Here’s my disclaimer: I am not a doctor, so the opinions expressed here should not replace one-on-one medical advice.

Melanoma is the fastest-growing, deadliest skin cancer a person may have, but it is not the most common. Other types of skin cancer include Basal Cell Carcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma.

Basal Cell Carcinoma makes up about 75% of all diagnosed skin cancers. They are usually found on the nose, ears, or other places that receive frequent sun exposure. People at risk for Basal Cell Cancer are those who have fair complexions, have blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair. Also, people who are overexposed to x-rays or other forms of radiation may be susceptible to basal cell lesions.

The lesions of basal cell carcinoma may look like a scar on a spot of skin that has never been injured. Often, they are slightly raised or flat, but not always. They may be white, pink, flesh-colored, or brown in color and they often have a pearly or waxy appearance. It is not uncommon for a skin cancer lesion to bleed easily, have irregular looking blood vessels running through it, or ooze and crust.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma has the same risk factors and similar characteristics as the basal cell kind. However, their lesions are described as a growing bump with rough, scaly, surface and flat reddish patches.

Fortunately, Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most easily treatable form of skin cancer. Such treatment methods include topical creams, cryotherapy (where the lesion is frozen off the skin), or surgical removal, either by scraping the cancerous tissue off the skin or cutting it out of the skin and using stitches to piece the tissue back together.

Although melanoma is not nearly as common as basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma, it is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Studies say Malignant Melanoma is responsible for up to 75% of all skin cancer-related deaths. A melanoma is an abnormal growth of pigment-producing cells in the skin called melanocytes. Not only can they be found on the skin, but they can also be found in the iris or retina of the eye, the esophagus, or even the large intestine.

The risk factors for melanoma are similar to other forms of skin cancer, including fair complexions, living in sunny climates or at high altitudes, or spending a lot of time in the sun unprotected. However, even one blistering sunburn from childhood could increase one’s risk for melanoma. Also, family history plays a role—as with other diseases, the diagnosis of a closely related family member increases your risk for developing skin cancer as well.

Most physicians use the mnemonic device “ABCDE” to evaluate characteristics of a mole to determine if it is a melanoma:

A. Asymetrical—most freckles or moles have a symmetrical shape.    Melanomas do not.

            B. Border—a benign lesion will have a smooth border, but a melanoma may             have an irregular, scalloped, or notched border

C. Color—when evaluating a benign lesion, it will have even pigmentation      throughout the mark. The color of a melanoma may be uneven and include a variety of colors such as tan, brown, black, blue, red, or even white.

D. Diameter—lesions that are larger than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser)             are deemed suspicious, but even ones that are smaller may be melanoma.   That’s why it is important to note any mole or spot that is increasing in size      from a month-to-month basis.

E. Evolving—any mole that is changing size, shape, or color should be           investigated by a physician.

If a melanoma exists, surgery must be done to remove the lesion and surrounding tissue to make sure the cancer does not spread. Other tests such as lymph node biopsies or CT scans or x-rays may be done to test for the spread of cancer as well.

The good news is with early detection, less than 20% of melanomas diagnoses early metastasize and affect other tissues.

It is recommended that adults between the ages of 20-40 visit their dermatologist every 3 years to look for any cancerous lesions. Those over the age of 40 should make a visit annually. In the meantime, it’s important to do self-checks monthly.

On women, melanomas are most commonly found on the legs and on men, they are most commonly found on the back. Each month, look for new spots that didn’t exist before. Also, look for changes in spots you already knew about and take note of any marks or lesions that don’t look like other spots on the body. Mirrors can be used for hard-to-see areas, or asking someone to look at areas like your back is also an option.

As a massage therapist, I tend to see more of a person’s skin than their own physician. So, if I find a lesion on my client’s skin that looks suspicious, especially if it is in a place that would be hard for the client to see on their own, I will refer them to a dermatologist for a more educated opinion.

Robin Faux, LMT (NM lic. 5600) has been practicing and studying massage therapy for more than 10 years. She has a degree in Integrative Medical Massage Therapy and has numerous certifications in techniques designed to relieve pain for her clients. When not massaging, Robin teaches anatomy and physiology to massage therapy students at MTTI in Las Cruces. If you want to get in touch with her, please call 719-650-9349 or email her at

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