How Common is Skin Cancer? And More Questions You’re Afraid to Ask

May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month

Sunscreen on orange background. Plastic bottle of sun protection and white cream in the form of question mark and numbers SPF

New Brunswick, N.J., May 1, 2022 — The American Cancer Society tells us that more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined. Our skin has many functions such as protecting our bodies from harmful substances, regulating body temperature, allows us to have a sense of touch – and can be an indicator of age or health. Skin cancer develops when there is an abnormal growth of skin cells, and most often develops on skin exposed to the sun. No question regarding the human body’s largest organ is too small, too uncomfortable, or too weird. Sarah Weiss, MD, medical oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and associate professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, answers questions about skin cancer and sun protection that you may be wondering.  

What are the most prevalent types of skin cancer?
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, followed by squamous cell carcinomas. Over 3 million people in the United States each year are diagnosed with these skin cancers. Melanoma is the third most common skin cancer but far less common than basal and squamous cell carcinomas.  In 2021, there were over 106,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in the United States.

Can complexion play a role in the development of skin cancer?
People with a fair complexion, blond hair or red hair, blue eyes, freckles, and those who have a tendency to sunburn easily are at increased risk for developing skin cancer. Despite this, all people, regardless of skin color, are at risk for developing skin cancer.

What are the risks associated with skin cancer in Black people?
People of all colors, including those with brown and black skin, get skin cancer. This is because they can be exposed to the same environmental risk factors, such as ultraviolet (UV) rays, as people of other races or

Can a tattoo increase skin cancer risk or hide skin cancer?
People with tattoos are not at an increased risk of developing skin cancer. However, people should consider avoiding placing a tattoo too close to or over a mole. Changes occurring in a mole (symmetry, border, color, size, shape or texture) are key warning signs of skin cancer.

Can children get skin cancer?
Skin cancer is not common in children, however, research shows that early childhood sunburn can increase a child’s risk for skin cancer later in life. A sunscreen with an SPF-30 or higher should be applied to all areas of a child’s body that are exposed to the sun. Infants under 6 months of age should be kept out of direct sunlight or covered with clothing rather than sunscreen if possible as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

How do you properly apply sunscreen?
Sunscreen will only protect your skin when it's used the right way. Use at least 1 ounce of sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher to cover all exposed skin. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapply every two hours. Even water-resistant sunscreen needs to be reapplied at least every 80 minutes.

Can air pollution cause skin cancer?
Exposure to air pollution does not increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

Are tanning beds safer than being in the sun?
People who use tanning beds have an increased risk of developing all types of skin cancer. There is no safe amount of indoor tanning. Any use of indoor tanning devices increases the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma, and this risk increases with more use of indoor tanning.

What does a stage 4 melanoma diagnosis mean?
Most people find their skin cancer early, before it has spread. But others find out they have the disease when it’s in an advanced stage. In stage 4 melanoma, the melanoma cells have spread from where the cancer first started (the primary site) to other parts of the body. 

What are my skin cancer treatment options?
There are many treatments available for melanoma but it depends on the stage of melanoma and whether it has metastasized. At Rutgers Cancer Institute we have a multidisciplinary team of medical oncologists like myself, as well as surgical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and dermatologists who can help manage your care and personalize your treatment plan.  Sometimes surgery alone is indicated for early stage melanomas, while more advanced melanomas may require a combination of therapies.  We especially use “systemic therapies” in advanced cases which include immunotherapy and targeted therapies.  They treat the whole body rather than one site of disease.

Should I participate in a clinical trial?
Clinical trials are how we bring new scientific advances to our patients to improve their outcomes.  You may want to participate in a clinical trial if you have melanoma or another skin cancer. Many of these clinical trials are only available at NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers such as Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and RWJBarnabas Health and may offer patients the opportunity for a new treatment option that may have otherwise been unavailable to them. If you are interested in participating in a clinical trial, ask your doctor whether you qualify, and discuss any concerns or questions you may have, to help you determine whether it’s a good fit for you. View available melanoma clinical trials at Rutgers Cancer Institute.


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