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UPMC Physician: How to Remain Happy and Healthy In the Sun

It’s that time of year again. We’ve warded off second — or third — winter and warmer temperatures are here to stay, hopefully. We’ve emerged from months of dark and dreary weather and want to enjoy the outdoors again until old man winter makes his cursed return. With spring and summer comes an increase in sunlight, which is great. But sometimes, too much of a good thing can be bad and the sun is no exception. May is Skin Cancer Awareness month. Let’s learn about the different types of skin cancer and how to prevent them so you can enjoy sunny days for years to come.

Types of Skin Cancer

Though people sometimes mistakenly use the terms melanoma and skin cancer interchangeably, they aren’t the same.

Melanoma: Melanoma accounts for about 1% of all skin cancers but causes a much higher percentage of skin-cancer deaths. It is the most serious type of skin cancer and develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin — the pigment that gives skin its color.

Melanomas can develop anywhere on your body, but most often in areas that have exposure to the sun, like back, legs, arms, and face. Melanomas can also develop in areas of your body that have little or no exposure to the sun like palms, soles, scalp, genitals, and between toes. In rare cases, melanoma can develop in the eyes, inside the nose, and even the throat.

In addition to melanoma, there are three main types of non-melanoma skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and Merkel cell cancer. These cancers start in the top layer of skin, called the epidermis. Each has their own distinct visual markers.

Basal cell carcinoma: Basal cells are found in the lower part of the epidermis. These cells constantly divide to form new cells to replace others that wear off the skin’s surface.

Basal cell cancer is the most common form of cancer and usually appears as:
– Open sores
– Red patches
– Pink growths
– Shiny bumps
– Scars
– Growths with slightly elevated, rolled edges

Basal cells grow slowly, are mostly curable, and cause minimal damage when caught and treated early. They rarely spread beyond the original site but can become disfiguring and pose a danger if not dealt with properly up front.

Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous cells are the second most common form of skin cancer. When caught early, it is highly curable.

These are flat cells located near the surface of the skin that shed continuously as new ones form. Squamous cell carcinoma often appears as:
– Scaly red patches
– Rough thickened warts
– Open sores
– Wart-like raised growths with a central depression

Although cancerous cells typically appear on skin exposed to the sun, they can occur in other parts of the body, including the genitals. Patients who have undergone a solid organ transplant or who are on medications that suppress the immune system are at particularly high risk for cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma.

Merkel cell carcinoma: Merkel cell carcinoma is an extremely rare variety occurs when malignant cancer cells form in the skin. Intense sun exposure well as a weak immune system can increase the risk of developing Merkel cell carcinoma. It usually appears as a single painless lump on sun-exposed skin such as the head, neck, arms, and legs.


It’s important to know how and where each type of skin cancer tends to appear. But you should also understand who is most likely to develop skin cancer, especially melanoma.

Although significantly less common than the other types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most troublesome and potentially life-threatening. It is more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught and treated early.

The average age at diagnosis is 65, and melanoma is more common in men. About one-third of melanoma begins in existing moles, but the rest occur in normal skin. It’s important to monitor your skin and if you notice any abnormal moles or coloration, speak with your provider. Note the ABCDEs of melanoma: Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, and Evolving.

The most important way to avoid developing all types of skin cancer — including melanoma — is to minimize exposure to the sun, specifically the ultraviolet (UV) rays, especially if you have fair or light skin. Be mindful of the sun’s peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when its burning rays are strongest. If you do go outside during this time, be sure to apply enough sunscreen and cover all exposed areas. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with SPF (sun-protection factor) 30 or higher and reapplying about every two hours. Wearing a sun hat or long-sleeved shirt also can help reduce your risk of sunburn. Don’t forget your sunglasses as well for protecting your eyes; look for a pair that offer full UVA and UVB protection.

Speak to your physician about other warning signs for melanoma and stay aware of any changes in your skin.

By Sabrina Mikita, M.D.
UPMC Williamsport

Sabrina Mikita, M.D., is a dermatologist with UPMC. She sees patients at 1205 Grampian Boulevard, Williamsport. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Mikita, call 570-326-8060. For more information, visit