Many factors lead to skin cancer

There are many factors that increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

Being fair skinned is one of these factors. While anyone of any skin colour can develop skin cancer, having less pigment, or melanin, in your skin provides less protection from damaging UV radiation.

If you have blond or red hair and light-coloured eyes, and you freckle or sunburn easily, you’re more likely to develop skin cancer than a person with darker skin.

People with a history of sunburns are also at higher risk of developing cancer. Every time you get sunburned, you damage your skin cells and increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

Having multiple blistering sunburns as a child or teenager increases the risk of developing skin cancer as an adult. Sunburns in adulthood also are a risk factor.

Excessive sun exposure also raises risk. Anyone who spends considerable time in the sun may develop skin cancer, especially if the skin isn’t protected by sunscreen or clothing.

Tanning, including exposure to tanning lamps and beds, also puts you at risk. A tan is your skin’s injury response to excessive UV radiation.

People who live in sunny or high-altitude climates are also susceptible to skin cancer. Those who live in sunny, warm climates are exposed to more sunlight than are people who live in colder climates. Living at higher elevations, where the sunlight is strongest, also exposes you to more radiation.

Another risk factor is the presence of moles on a person’s face or body. People who have many moles or abnormal moles called dysplastic nevi are at increased risk of skin cancer.

These abnormal moles, which look irregular and are generally larger than normal moles, are more likely to become cancerous. The chance of any single mole turning into cancer is very low. If you have a history of abnormal moles, watch them regularly for changes.

People should also watch for pre-cancerous skin lesions. Having skin lesions known as actinic keratoses can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. These precancerous skin growths typically appear as rough, scaly patches that range in colour from brown to dark pink. They are most common on the face, lower arms and hands of fair-skinned people whose skin has been sun damaged.

Those with a family history of skin cancer, whose parents or siblings have had skin cancer, should also be aware they may have an increased risk of the disease, as do those who have a personal history of skin cancer. If you developed skin cancer once, you’re at risk of developing it again. Even basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas that have been successfully removed can recur.

Individuals with a weakened immune system also have a greater risk of developing skin cancer. This includes people living with HIV/AIDS or leukaemia and those taking immunosuppressant drugs after an organ transplant.

Exposure to certain substances, such as arsenic, may increase your risk of skin cancer. Workers exposed to industrial tar, coal, paraffin, and certain types of oil may have an increased risk, too.

Getting older is also a factor. The risk of developing skin cancer increases with age, primarily because many skin cancers develop slowly.

The damage that occurs during childhood or adolescence may not become apparent until middle age. However, skin cancer isn’t limited to older people and can occur at any age because people are spending more time in the sun without protecting their skin.

Smoking is a risk factor for squamous cell skin cancer.

A small number of skin cancers seem to be linked to infection with human papilloma virus.

Radiation treatment can also be a risk factor and this can be a problem for children who have had cancer treatment.

Men are twice as likely as women to have basal cell cancers and about three times as likely to have squamous cell cancers of the skin.

Certain long-term or severe skin problems, such as scars from bad burns, areas of skin over bad bone infections, and skin damaged by certain skin diseases, may also increase risk.

Having had psoriasis (a long-lasting inflammatory skin disease) treated with psoralen and ultraviolet light treatments can increase risk of squamous cell skin cancer, and maybe other skin cancers, too.

A very rare disease called xeroderma pigmentosum, which tends to run in families, makes the skin less able to repair sun damage.

People with this disease get many skin cancers, sometimes starting in childhood.

Basal cell nevus syndrome, a rare condition that is present at birth, causes some people to have many basal cell cancers. It often runs in families.

Scientists have also found that certain people are more likely than others to develop skin cancer after sun exposure. In these people, certain parts of the normal cells are more sensitive to being damaged by sunlight.

Victoria Anderson is project coordinator of the Cayman Islands Cancer Society

People with a history of sunburns are at higher risk of developing cancer.

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