Skin Cancer

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Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

Everyone is at some risk for skin cancer, but certain factors increase this risk. Most risk factors apply to all three of the major skin cancers, but there are certain factors associated with only non-melanoma skin cancers and others that pertain to only melanoma. Read below about all three risk categories:

Non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancer risks

These factors relate to all three of the major skin cancers. If any apply to you, it is extremely important to take proper precautions to protect yourself by limiting your sun exposure and using sunscreen.

  • Coloring
    If you have fair skin, blond, red, or light brown hair, blue eyes, or freckles your risk is increased. According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of melanoma is about 20 times higher for whites than for African-Americans. The reason lies in the pigment melanin. More melanin accounts for darker skin, which has the ability to tan more easily, block out damaging sun rays, and keep darker-skinned people from becoming sunburned as easily as fair-skinned people. Despite this, it is important to remember that anyone can get skin cancer.
  • Blistering sunburns
    If you have experienced several blistering sunburns as a child or teen, or if you burn before you tan, you are at increased risk for skin cancer.
  • Sun exposure
    If you spend a lot of time outdoors for work or recreation, you are at increased risk.
  • Weekend sun
    If you work indoors all week and then are exposed to sun on the weekends, while, for example, swimming, washing the car without a shirt on, playing volleyball at the beach, coaching soccer, or gardening, your risk is increased.
  • Climate
    If you live or vacation in tropical and subtropical climates and areas with year-round, bright sunlight, you are at increased risk for skin cancer. (The risk of developing non-melanoma cancer is twice as high in Arizona as in Minnesota.)
  • Altitude
    If you live, work, or vacation at high altitudes, you are at increased risk. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun increases 4 to 5 percent for every 1,000 feet above sea level.
  • Personal history
    If you have been treated for skin cancer in the past, your risk is higher.
  • Family history
    You are at higher risk for skin cancer when one or more “first degree” relatives: father, mother, sisters, brothers, or children have had skin cancer. The more family members that have or have had skin cancer, the higher your risk.
  • Xeroderma pigmentation
    This is a rare, inherited skin condition, where a person’s body cannot repair DNA damage caused by ultraviolet lights. People with xeroderma pigmentation are at risk for damage to their eyes as well as for the three types of skin cancers discussed here. Symptoms can begin in childhood.
  • A weakened immune system
    You are at higher risk for skin cancer if you are taking medications for an organ transplant, have AIDS, cancer, or are on immune-suppressant drugs.
  • Artificial tanning
    Use of tanning beds, booths, or sunlamps increases risk.
  • Medications
    Ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist if any of the medications you are taking could be harmful when you are out in sunlight, or if they make you more prone to sun damage. These include medicines such as tetracycline, sulfa drugs and some other antibiotics; naproxen sodium, ibuprofen and some other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); phenothiazines (sedatives and anti-nausea drugs), tricyclic antidepressants, thiazide diuretics (medications used for high blood pressure and other conditions), sulfonylureas (an oral anti-diabetic medication), or medications that lower your body’s immunity.

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma risk factors

These factors put you at risk for one or both of the non-melanoma skin cancers:

  • Smoking
    Though most commonly associated with lung cancer, smoking can cause many other types of cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Human Papilloma virus (HPV)
    HPV is a group of more than 100 viruses that can cause papillomas (warts); some of the types that affect a person’s genital and anus areas appear to be related to skin cancers in these areas.
  • Basal cell nevus
    A rare, congenital (present at birth) condition which causes multiple basal cell cancers, often developing before the age of 20. Most cases are inherited.
  • Long-term or severe skin inflammation or injury
    Scars from severe burns, and skin damaged by severe inflammatory skin diseases pose a small risk.
  • Treatment for psoriasis (a long-lasting inflammatory skin disease)
    Psoralen and ultraviolet light treatments (PUVA) increase your chances of developing squamous cell skin cancer and possibly others.
  • Radiation exposure
    Radiation treatments for cancer or other illnesses, particularly at the place on your body that received the radiation, can cause skin cancer.
  • Melanoma risk factors
    These risk factors are specific to melanoma.
  • Age
    Your chances of developing melanoma increase with age. A 70-year-old’s risk of developing melanoma is twice that of a 45-year-old. At the same time, it is one of the most common cancers in people under 30 years old.
  • Sex
    One in 57 men will develop melanoma as opposed to one in 81 women.
  • Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
    Anyone who has close family members with one or both of these cancers may be at increased risk of melanoma, mostly likely because of a similar kind of gene mutation.
  • Moles
    A mole (“nevus”) is a benign (noncancerous) tumor that usually begins during the childhood or teenage years. A mole is a collection of pigment cells that are usually round or oval, flat or raised, symmetrical with smooth borders, and are one of several colors. It is a good idea to be on the alert and check your moles regularly. On average, people have between 10 and 40 moles, with new ones appearing until middle adulthood. A chance of any single mole becoming cancerous is low: around 1 in 2,000 for men and one in 9,000 for women. People with lots of moles or who have large moles are at a higher risk for melanoma.
  • Dysplastic (“atypical”) nevus
    These moles develop from childhood on through the adult years and often run in families. If you have family members with dysplastic nevi (plural) you have a 50 percent chance of developing them. Lifetime melanoma risk for those with dysplastic nevi is between 6 and 10 percent, depending on age, family history, the number of dysplastic nevi, and other factors.
Increased risk for children

Children love fun in the sun. But they are extremely susceptible to sun damage, which often leads to skin cancer later in life. Studies show that intense sun exposure and blistering sunburns increase the risk for melanoma, which can sometimes be fatal.