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What you need to know about skin cancer

Over 3,000 cases of skin cancers occur each year in Singapore.1

"Skin cancers are classified as melanomas and non-melanoma types, depending on the cells that give rise to them," explained Clinical Assistant Professor Jason Chan, Consultant in the National Cancer Centre of Singapore's Department of Lymphoma and Sarcoma, Division of Medical Oncology.

Melanomas are cancers of the melanocytes – these cells are found in the skin and produce melanin pigments responsible for skin colour. More common in Singapore are non-melanomas which manifest as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Generally, melanomas are more aggressive than non-melanomas and are usually more severe.

Who, how, what?

Skin cancer can affect people of all ages. In Singapore, about 50% of melanoma skin cancers occur in individuals below the age of 65. 

The majority of skin cancers are due to repeated and chronic skin exposure to ultraviolet rays from sunlight. 

Individuals with skin cancer may present with varying symptoms, including the development of new growths or bumps, open sores or reddish patches that persist for several weeks or more.

Is sun protection important? Is higher SPF sunscreen always better?

It is a common misconception that only people who engage in many outdoor activities and have excessive sun exposure can get skin cancer.

"There are many other risk factors for skin cancer apart from excessive sun exposure. Skin cancers may occur in non-sun exposed areas of the body as well. Other risk factors may include a family history of certain cancers, immune system deficiencies, or exposure to certain toxins or cancer-related viruses," shared Clin Asst Prof Chan.

When it comes to sunscreen, he advised, "I would recommend SPF of at least 30 to protect harmful UV radiation from reaching the skin. This prevents about 97% of harmful UV-B radiation from reaching the skin. Using a higher SPF sunscreen may not block off much more UV radiation."

A good sunscreen is water-resistant and should offer broad-spectrum protection from both UV-A and UV-B radiation. An adequate amount should be applied to all sun-exposed areas and be reapplied every two to four hours when outdoors for optimal sun protection.

Is the condition treatable?

Skin cancer is highly treatable if detected and treated early. But aggressive forms of skin cancer, like melanoma, can be deadly if not treated early.

The treatment of skin cancers depends on the specific subtype and stage of the disease. Usually, this involves surgery to remove the affected area and the area of normal skin around it. If the skin defect is large, a skin graft may be required to cover the wound.

If the cancer is advanced, treatment options may include a combination of radiotherapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy.

What to look out for

Skin cancer can present as a mole, growth, bump, sore, or reddish patch that persists for weeks. If you find something suspicious on your skin that has just appeared or has changed appearance recently, such as a mole changing in size, shape or colour, have it checked by a doctor!

1Singapore Cancer Registry