Skin cancers often start small, appearing first as a new mole or scaly patch of skin. Although you might not think much of them, these changes may develop into something more serious if left untreated and jeopardize your overall health and wellness. Fortunately, most skin cancers can be easily treated when caught early and learning how to recognize precancerous lesions can greatly improve your chances of recovery. At Coastal Dermatology & Medspa, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sanjiva Goyal and his team of skincare experts have put together a guide on precancerous skin lesions to help you identify suspicious changes and stop skin cancer in its tracks. Keep reading to learn more about what to look for and when it’s time to call your doctor.
What are Precancerous Skin Lesions?Precancerous skin lesions are abnormal growths that have an increased chance of developing into skin cancer. They can occur anywhere on the body but are more likely to appear in areas that have had a lot of sun exposure, such as the face, lips, neck, shoulders or hands. Appearance varies depending on the type of lesion, but you may notice rough patches of skin, scaly bumps or abnormal-looking moles. We’ve described some of the most common conditions below to help you identify suspicious lesions and take charge of your health, promoting early detection, prevention and awareness of various skin cancers.
Actinic keratosis is the most common form of precancerous skin lesions, affecting a large proportion of individuals over the age of 40. Also known as sun spots, these small, scaly lesions vary in color and tend to appear in clusters, forming patches of sandpaper-like skin on the hands, face and other sun-exposed areas. They are more common in those with fair skin, light hair and freckles, but anyone can develop actinic keratosis, especially those with a history of frequent or intense sun exposure. Although actinic keratosis can be treated or removed, the presence of these lesions indicates that skin damage has already occurred and raises your overall risk of skin cancer. This risk increases over time and with the appearance of additional spots, so it’s important to check your skin regularly and talk to your doctor if you notice any new growths or changes.
Actinic cheilitis is a precancerous skin lesion that affects the lips, usually located on the lower lip. Also called “farmer’s lip” or “sailor’s lip,” actinic cheilitis is characterized by inflammation, discoloration and persistent dryness or cracking of the lips, as well as prominent folds or lines. Actinic cheilitis develops due to long-term sun exposure, as harmful UV rays can easily penetrate the lip epithelium and cause damage that leads to abnormalities. If left untreated, actinic cheilitis may lead to skin cancer, with an estimated 10 percent of all cases progressing to squamous cell carcinoma. Skin cancers that develop from actinic cheilitis tend to be more aggressive than others and often metastasize to other tissues, so it’s crucial to see your doctor if you notice any of these changes to your lips to ensure timely treatment.
Moles are a common growth that occurs when skin cells cluster together, creating pigmented spots that can vary in size, shape and color. Moles can develop anywhere on the body and are usually harmless, but occasionally a mole with atypical features may appear that could indicate an increased risk of melanoma or other skin cancers. This is especially true if you notice changes in the height, size, color or shape of a mole. It can be difficult to identify an atypical mole, but the following ABCDE warning signs can be used as a guide and help you decide whether or not a mole should be checked by a dermatologist.
Asymmetry — The mole has an irregular shape or arrangement that lacks symmetry.
Border — The edges of the mole are ragged, uneven or notched.
Color — Multiple colors appear throughout the mole or you notice varying shades of black, brown, tan, blue, white or red.
Diameter or Dark — The mole is much darker than others or larger than the eraser of a pencil.
Evolving — The mole is changing in size, shape or color over time.
Another way to identify an atypical mole is the “ugly duckling” rule. While most of the normal moles on your body will closely resemble each other, those that stand out like an ugly duckling could be a warning sign of melanoma. If you notice a suspicious mole and it exhibits any of these signs, it’s important to have it checked as soon as possible. As with other skin cancers, early detection of melanoma can help prevent it from spreading and greatly increase the effectiveness of treatment.
Bowen’s disease is a skin condition that causes an individual to develop red, scaly patches on the skin. Also called squamous cell carcinoma in situ, Bowen’s disease affects the outermost layers of skin and closely resembles actinic keratosis. Unlike actinic keratosis, however, the red plaques caused by Bowen’s disease are larger, usually appear solo and continue to grow over time. They tend to develop on the legs, face, hands and other areas that have been exposed to the sun, but may also occur on the palms, genitals, soles of the feet and around the nails. If a patch of Bowen’s disease begins to harden or develop a nodule, these changes may indicate that the lesion is becoming cancerous. Since Bowen’s disease is often considered an early form of skin cancer, see your doctor right away if you develop any of these symptoms to get evaluated and determine an appropriate treatment.
Although the primary risk factor for developing precancerous lesions and skin cancer is exposure to harmful UV rays from the sun, things like age and genetics also play a role. Anyone can get precancerous skin lesions, but the following may indicate that you are at a higher risk than others:
Fair skin and light hair
Inability to tan
Frequent sun exposure
History of moderate to severe sunburns
Age (40 years or older)
Family history of skin cancer
Weakened immune system
Some of these risk factors you can minimize by using sunscreen and limiting sun exposure, helping to prevent precancerous skin lesions from forming in the first place. If you are at an increased risk, becoming familiar with the marks and moles on your body and performing regular self-exams can help you identify any abnormalities, allowing you to receive effective treatment when it matters most.
At Coastal Dermatology & Medspa, your health is our top priority, and that’s why we offer screening and prevention services to promote the early detection of skin cancers. If you have precancerous lesions or notice a suspicious mole, Dr. Goyal and his experienced team can give you peace of mind with a thorough evaluation and advanced diagnostic tools. This can help catch any malignant moles or lesions before they spread and increase the overall effectiveness of treatments, significantly improving your chances of recovery. Depending on the results of your screening, Dr. Goyal will recommend the appropriate next steps to ensure your health, which may include a biopsy, routine monitoring or removal of any precancerous or cancerous lesions. During your appointment, he will discuss these options with you and develop a customized treatment plan based on your unique situation, working closely with you and your family to help ensure the best possible outcome.
Skin cancer can be frightening, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re at risk, learning to recognize the warning signs can help ensure early detection and greatly improve your prognosis. To schedule a skin cancer screening with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Goyal or learn more about precancerous skin lesions, contact or call Coastal Dermatology & Medspa today in Jacksonville, Florida, at 904-727-9123 or nearby Ponte Vedra Beach at 904-567-1050.
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