When you hit the beach this summer, it’s important to be aware of the sun-related dangers and to take steps to prevent your entire family from skin damage and skin cancer. You may not even be aware that skin cancer is possible in children and teens. But, while rare, pediatric skin cancer does occur.
Types of Skin Cancer
- Basal cell carcinoma: Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer that starts in the basal cell layer of the skin and grows very slowly. Fortunately, it is highly treatable, especially when caught early. Basal cell carcinomas typically resemble small shiny bumps or nodules and generally pop up in areas that are exposed to the sun, such as the face and neck.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous cell carcinomas can take on various appearances including red, scaly patches of skin or flesh-colored nodules. They grow more rapidly than basal cell carcinoma but are still quite treatable. The spread of squamous cell carcinoma to other parts of the body is rare.
- Melanoma: This form of skin cancer is the least common but causes the highest number of deaths. Melanomas always begin in the melanocyte cells (cells that make your skin’s pigment) and may begin as a mole. Melanomas are more aggressive than basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, and early identification and treatment is crucial.
The main cause of skin cancer is exposure to the sun. Skin cancer is rare in children because sun damage is typically cumulative. However, cases in kids do occur, and certain genetic risk factors can amplify your child’s chances of experiencing skin cancer at some point during their lifetime.
Risk factors include having fair skin, freckles, and blonde or red hair, a family history of skin cancer, or a history of severe sunburns.
Red flags of skin irregularities that may be cancerous include:
- A mole or other growth that oozes or bleeds
- A mole or other growth that suddenly changes size, shape, or color
- A mole or other growth that is painful or itchy
- A small, raised bump that is shiny or resembles a pearl
- Patches of skin that are red, raised, and scaly or that bleed
- An irregularly shaped growth with raised edges or multiple colors
The ABCDE rule is typically cited to help patients identify potential cancerous spots. This formula refers to asymmetry, border irregularity, color (differing colors), diameter (bigger than 6mm is a cause for concern), and evolving (changes in size, shape, or color).
Diagnosis and Treatment
When in doubt, always see a doctor. The best way to diagnose skin cancer is with a thorough examination by a qualified dermatologist. If your child’s doctor determines that a biopsy is necessary, they may perform a shave or punch biopsy to extract enough cells to send to the lab.
If the results come back as malignant, a simple outpatient surgery (such as Mohs surgery) to remove the entire growth is generally all that is needed to treat a small area of skin cancer that has not spread.
Some types of skin cancer can be treated with topical chemotherapy, cryosurgery (freezing), or localized skin radiation therapy.
In severe cases, such as a melanoma that has spread to the lymph nodes, traditional chemotherapy and other systemic cancer treatments may be necessary.
Once a patient has been diagnosed at least once with skin cancer, it becomes even more important for them to be checked annually or even more often for any new potential growths. Establishing a relationship with a trusted dermatologist is important for spotting any irregularities early and being familiar with your child’s skin and medical history. Once a case of skin cancer has been found, it becomes even more important to protect your child’s skin from future damage by wearing a daily sunscreen.
Wearing sunblock is key to preventing sun-related skin cancer and sun damage at any age. Look for a product with an SPF of 30 or higher that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Apply at least ten minutes before going outdoors (30 minutes before going swimming) and reapply often.
Spend as much time as you can indoors or in the shade during the heat of the day when the sun’s harmful rays are at their strongest (typically from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
In addition, a parent can ensure that their child is well protected from the sun by choosing full-coverage clothing like sun hats and long-sleeved bathing suits when spending the day at a beach or pool.