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Understanding skin cancer and ways you can prevent it

Skin cancer is more common than you think. It is actually the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, and one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they turn 70. By understanding why skin cancer develops, risk factors, and the signs and symptoms, you can often prevent it from occurring, or if it does occur, can deal with it early on. When treated early, skin cancer is almost 100% curable. 

What is skin cancer and what are the risk factors?

Skin cancer is the formation of skin cells that grow at an abnormal and uncontrolled rate. The two most common types of skin cancers are basal cell cancer (BCC) and squamous cell cancer (SCC) which are collectively called  non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSC). These develop slowly in the upper layers of the skin. The third major type of skin cancer is melanoma, which develops in the skin cells that create your skin color. Melanoma is less common than BCC or SCC and treated differently because of its different clinical presentation and patterns of spread. Because of these differences, this blog will focus on NMSC. 

The number one risk factor for developing skin cancer is exposure to UV light, primarily from the sun and tanning beds. Getting sunburned even once is a sign of cellular skin damage, and each additional sunburn you get increases your risk of developing skin cancer. Individuals with fair skin or red hair tend to be at higher risk, as they sunburn more easily.

While sun damage increases your risk, skin cancer can develop anywhere on the body, including places you would not expect, such as the soles of the feet, palms of the hands, around or under the nails, in the eyes or in the genital area. Individuals who have had one skin cancer are at higher risk for developing subsequent additional skin cancers.

Skin Cancer Awareness Month kicks off summer vacation and activities for many people, and is a perfect time to educate yourself on skin cancer prevention techniques, as well as how to spot the warning signs and symptoms.  

How to prevent skin cancer

You can help prevent skin cancer by:

  • Seeking shade: If your shadow is shorter than you are, find a shady spot and reduce your exposure to the sun. Remember, the sun’s rays are strongest between 10am and 2pm.
  • Wearing protective clothing: Wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts are important for year-round prevention. 
  • Applying sunscreen and reapplying often: Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect all exposed skin from both UVA and UVB rays. It’s important to apply throughout the day – even when it’s cloudy. 
  • Being cautious of reflections from water and sand: These surfaces reflect the sun’s rays and increase the likelihood of exposing your skin to damaging effects. 
  • Avoiding indoor tanning beds: Ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause skin cancer and premature skin aging. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared these beds to be cancer-causing agents.

Understand the warning signs of skin cancer and talk to your dermatologist, primary care physician or other healthcare provider if you notice:


BCC and SCC are curable when treated properly and promptly. If you are diagnosed with skin cancer, there are a variety of treatment options ranging from topical therapy, surgery and radiation that can be selected based on your specific needs and goals. 

This blog post was reviewed for clinical accuracy by Paul Wallner, DO, Radiation Oncologist. It was last updated on May 2, 2023. 

Metastatic Cancer Patient