Skin Cancer for Seniors

Donna Mae Scheib

Skin Cancer for Seniors

Posted by Donna Mae Scheib on September 25, 2019

Skin Cancer for Seniors

Did you know that according to the American Academy of Dermatology, skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer? That’s right… 1 in 5 people are expected to be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetimes.

And seniors are on the very top of the list. As their life expectancy increases, they naturally have increased exposure to the sun and more than likely did not always adhere to the proper use of sunblocks. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that it is this cumulative sun damage over a person’s lifetime that directly correlates to the higher incident level of skin cancer. For example, at the age of 40, the average person has received nearly 50% of their cumulative sun damage. However, this increases to 100% at age 60.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is defined as the abnormal growth of skin cells. It usually develops on the skin that is exposed to ultraviolet rays of the sun. However, some growths can even appear on covered parts of the body. Many of these growths are benign, but others can be malignant.

What are the usual signs and symptoms of skin cancer?

An abnormal lump or bump on the skin, some discoloration of the skin, and sometimes the formulation of ulcers are typical symptoms. These signs should not be confused with warts, skin tags, or liver spots. You should also be aware of any moles that change in color, size, or shape. In addition, any new growths on the skin or skin lesions/sores that don’t heal, and growths that itch or bleed are considerations.

Types of Skin Cancer

The more common types of malignancies include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Kaposi sarcoma, Markel cell carcinoma, and sebaceous gland carcinoma are less common.

  • Basal cell carcinoma occurs most frequently in the sun-exposed areas. It is characterized as a flat, brown-colored or scar-like lesion that appears as a pearly, waxy bump.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma also appears in areas that have been exposed to the sun but it may also show up on unexposed areas of the skin. It is described as a flat lesion with a crusted, scaly surface or a reddish, firm nodule.
  • Melanoma progresses from a mole and can develop anywhere. It may become cancerous. Often, melanoma has rough, uneven borders and some discoloring or it appears as a large brownish spot that is discolored in nature.

Causes of Skin Cancer

There are several known causes of skin cancer. The main cause seems to be prolonged exposure to sunlight. However, tanning beds can also have a similarly damaging effect on the skin cells.  Sunburns are very dangerous as research has found that 1-5 blistering sunburns before a person turns 20 increases the chances of getting skin cancer by 50-80%.

Besides the sun’s rays, you may be genetically predisposed to this form of cancer (via personal or family history), be exposed to various toxic agents (e.g., arsenic), or you could have abnormal mutations in your skin cells’ DNA. Each of these factors can add to the rapid growth of these cancerous cells which invade and ultimately destroy the surrounding healthy tissue. Also, individuals who have fairer skin or abnormally shaped and sized moles, anyone with a history of skin burns, and those who live in higher altitudes are more apt to develop skin cancer.

Besides having a pattern of increased exposure to the sun from living longer, seniors are more likely to have weaker immune systems, a reduced healing capacity, and thinner/more fragile skin in general. These characteristics mean that seniors have diminished defenses and are prime targets of fast-acting skin damage from the sun.

Skin Cancer Treatment

A skin biopsy is a common way to help with the diagnosis. Depending on the location of the lesion, the depth, the size, and the type, there are different approaches to treatment. These approaches range from cryotherapy or freezing, laser therapy, Mohs surgery to scrape the lesion layer by layer, curettage and electrodesiccation (burning the lesion), radiation therapy, chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs are administered systemically or topically), photodynamic therapy (making the cancerous cells photosensitive with medication and applying light to destroy it), biological therapy to stimulate the immune cells to act against the cancerous cells, and cutting out the tumor along with the surrounding normal tissue (i.e., excisional biopsy).

Skin Protection

There are many ways to protect your skin and to help you stay healthy.

  • Self-exams. Do self-exams at home by yourself or seek assistance from a primary caregiver. Note any changes in the skin and in the overall health. If there are spots, changes in the coloring of the skin, burns, or bumps, seek a medical professional for advice and further treatment.
  • The sun. Avoid excessive sun exposure. The early morning hours and early evening times are the best to enjoy the outdoors. The hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is at its peak should be avoided as much as possible. Likewise, if it is a high-temperature day, try to spend more time indoors where it is cooler and you are not exposed to the sun. If you are outside, try to stay in shaded areas. Also, it is important to keep your body cooler and seek a sheltered area if you feel hot or overheated.
  • Skin protection. Cover up your skin to offer protection from the sun’s rays. Wear lightweight clothing (e.g., a long sleeve shirt or jacket and long pants). Also, consider wearing a broad-rimmed hat and sunglasses to help block out the harmful ultraviolet rays.
  • Sunscreen. Water-resistant sunscreen is a must for your loved one. Read the label and follow the recommendations as to how much to apply. The label also informs you of when to apply it before venturing outside and when you should reapply it. Usually, the application time is about 30 minutes prior to going out in the sun to absorb properly. It is important to note that every sunscreen is rated with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF). For example, SPF 30 can filter 97% of the UVB rays while SPF 50 can stop 98%. The higher the number, the better the coverage. So, keep that in mind when you are purchasing the sunscreen.
  • Skin exams. Have a professional skin exam each year. A family doctor or dermatologist can check for any skin disorders and/or health issues leading to skin cancer. Early detection is important; research to date indicates that when detected and treated early, melanoma has a 98% survival rate.

In Summary

Although skin cancer is quite common and more prevalent for the senior population, it can definitely be avoided. There are many precautions to take to prevent this disease from occurring. Conducting routine self-exams, staying out of the sun during peak times, wearing protective clothing, using proper sunscreen, and seeing a medical professional for an annual exam are important measures to take. Being proactive and taking preventative actions goes a long way to ensure that you live a longer, healthier life without falling victim to dangerous skin cancer. 

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