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Skin Cancer Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

May 23, 2024 • read

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Skin Cancer Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Skin cancer is a prevalent yet often overlooked health issue that touches the lives of many Canadians, manifesting in various forms from harmless-looking blemishes to more serious moles that may be precursors to melanoma.

According to the Canadian Skin Cancer Society, 80,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year. However, most cases of skin cancer are preventable, and it’s important to know the signs of skin cancer and how to protect yourself. 

This article will explain the causes of skin cancer, symptoms to look out for, and the common types of skin cancer including melanoma, which tends to be the most aggressive form.

What causes skin cancer?

Sunshine can be helpful for our mental health and conditions like psoriasis and eczema, but it also comes with risks. Prolonged sun exposure at any stage of life puts you at risk for skin cancer. This is especially true of childhood sunburns which increase the risk of developing melanoma as you age.

During this time, it’s important to keep an eye on moles and spots on your body. Many skin cancers are preventable, and being aware of the signs of skin cancer, and getting a mole mapping scan, can be helpful. 

Types of skin cancer

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer in Canada and usually affects areas of your body exposed to the sun. Its appearance can vary, from a white or waxy bump to a flat, flesh-coloured or brown scar-like lesion to a bleeding or scabbing sore that heals but ultimately returns. Basal cell carcinomas can also cause red, itchy patches, which may leave you unsure if you have a rash or skin cancer.

Despite being the least dangerous form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinomas do require treatment because if they are left untreated can become invasive and destructive to nearby structures including bone, which can lead to disfigurement. 

Squamous cell carcinoma also occurs in areas of your body exposed to the sun. This type of carcinoma can appear as firm, red nodules, or flat lesions with a crusted surface. The larger these tumours grow, the more destructive they become, increasing their potential to metastasize or spread to the lymph nodes or other organs. 

Both basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common and highly treatable types of skin cancers, especially when addressed early. However, the third most common type of skin cancer, melanoma, is much more dangerous.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in your melanocytes — the cells responsible for making pigment. It occurs when your melanocytes grow out of control, which is why melanoma tumours resemble moles; it’s not uncommon for this to cause worry about a new mole or changes to an existing one. 

Melanoma tends to be a more aggressive form of cancer than other skin cancers; however, there are different types of melanoma, each with their own prognosis.

Types of melanoma

Superficial spreading melanoma

Superficial spreading melanoma begins in the top layer of the skin, and, although it can grow into its deeper layers, it usually spreads outward. The most common form of melanoma, superficial spreading melanoma, can begin as a new spot or grow from a pre-existing mole. It’s a highly curable form of melanoma when it’s caught early.

Nodular melanoma

A fast-growing version of the disease and more dangerous because it quickly grows deeper into the skin, nodular melanoma is usually found in areas with less sun exposure.

Symptoms of nodular melanoma include a symmetrical papule, or growth, that sticks out of the skin. Because of this, it may resemble a pimple or blood blister, leading to some initial confusion about what it is. Nodular melanoma is also highly curable when caught early. However, because it can grow 0.5mm a month, nodular melanoma may spread rapidly and is often discovered at a later stage.

Lentigo maligna melanoma

A slow-growing cancer, lentigo maligna melanomas begin life as dark patches of precancerous skin called lentigo maligna. Found in areas subject to regular sun exposure, these dark patches may remain precancerous for years and even decades in some cases. A change in colour or texture, or the appearance of a raised portion may be a sign that it’s become malignant.

Acral lentiginous melanoma

A rare form of cancer, but most common among individuals with darker pigmented skin, acral lentiginous melanoma isn’t related to sun exposure. Instead, it appears on the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands — areas unlikely to receive much sunlight. Acral lentiginous melanoma can also develop under the nails. It initially presents as a flat patch of skin with a different, usually darker pigment. While more research is needed, the development of acral lentiginous melanoma may be tied to trauma or physical stress at the site of the cancer.

How to spot melanoma

Melanoma has certain characteristics distinguishing it from a normal mole. While you’ll need to see a dermatologist or have the mole removed for biopsy to diagnose you with melanoma, there are certain signs to look for, including the “ABCDEs” of moles:

  • A – Asymmetry: one side doesn’t match the other. Healthy moles are usually symmetrical.
  • B – Border: edges are irregular, jagged, or scalloped.
  • C – Colour: healthy moles tend to be a uniform shade of brown. Dark moles, or moles with different colours (black, brown, grey, red, or white), might be cancerous.
  • D – Diameter: pay attention to moles larger than 6mm in diameter or that are growing quickly. You can do this by taking a picture with a measuring tape next to it and track it over time. 
  • E – Evolution: a mole that suddenly appears, grows, or changes colour or shape, or that exhibits symptoms like bleeding, itching, or pain, should be investigated.
  • Ugly Duckling — while not a letter that follows the others, anytime a mole doesn’t look like your other moles, you should take note of it. Known as the “ugly duckling” rule, this is a way to flag moles that are more likely to be problematic. 

Another sign to watch out for is how your mole feels. It may be time to see a dermatologist if it hurts, or itches, or bleeds.

How to reduce your risk of skin cancer

Dermatologists recommend “knowing your skin” as a first line of defence against skin cancer. This means you should track how many moles you have and if any of them change.

Next, since ultraviolet rays are the main environmental cause of skin cancer, it’s crucial to protect your skin from the sun. This includes:

  • Wearing sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day, even in winter or on cloudy days
  • Avoiding the sun during peak hours (from 11am to 3pm), especially when UV rays are the strongest (between 12pm to 2pm)
  • Wearing long-sleeve shirts, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat if you’re going to be out in the sun
  • Steering clear of tanning beds

The importance of mole mapping

Addressing skin cancer and melanoma requires a comprehensive approach that includes regular check-ups and early detection. If you have a suspicious-looking mole or melanoma, it’s important to contact a primary care provider as a first preventative step.

Knowing your skin is also an important part of being proactive about potential skin cancers. For people living in the Greater Toronto Area, in-person mole mapping services can be booked through Maple. Through our service, technicians use digital imaging to scan existing moles and provide a comprehensive report.

Getting support for skin cancer and melanoma concerns

Seeing a dermatologist for a suspected skin cancer lesion is crucial as early detection and treatment of certain skin cancers could be life-saving. 

Addressing skin cancer and melanoma requires a comprehensive approach that includes regular check-ups and early detection. If you have a suspicious-looking mole or melanoma, it’s important to contact a primary care provider or general practitioner as a first preventative step. In Toronto, mole mapping services can also be booked through Maple. are also available

Dermatologists are at the forefront of skin cancer treatment, specializing in diagnosing and managing skin disorders, including cancerous lesions. A visit with a dermatologist can provide you with a specialized plan for treatments and tracking your condition. However, if you’re among the 6.5 million Canadians without a family doctor, this could result in long wait times at the walk-in clinic.

But getting an appointment with a dermatologist in person can take a while. Appointments require a referral from your healthcare provider, and if you’re among the one in five Canadians without a family doctor, this could result in long wait times at the walk-in clinic. On top of that, getting a referral doesn’t guarantee a timely appointment. The average wait time to see a dermatologist in Canada is between 6 to 18 months, depending on where you live.

With Maple, Canada’s leading virtual care platform, you can book an appointment directly with a Canadian-licensed dermatologist, who can provide a diagnosis and personalized treatment plan. n from a Canadian-licensed dermatologist without a referral in less than 24 hours. Dermatologists on Maple are the same specialists you’d see in person, but they also practice outside of their own clinic hours to see patients virtually. 

The information presented here is for educational purposes and is not meant to replace the advice from your medical professional. Maple is safe and effective for common non-emergency issues, saving you time and offering ease of mind. If you believe you are experiencing an emergency, please call 911 or proceed to your nearest emergency room.

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