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Skin cancer is easy to avoid, but treatment for those who get it has improved

 Dermatologist examining moles of patient
Dermatologist examining moles of patient

The more time we spend outdoors under the sun or on a tanning bed, the greater the chance of skin cancer - the most common of all cancers. KERA’s Sam Baker talks about this with Dr. Katherine Wang, an oncologist with Texas Health Dallas.

About skin cancer/melanoma:

The good news is, you know, skin cancer is probably one of the most preventable cancers overall. Most skin cancers developed on the surface of your skin. So, if you pay attention to the moles that look different, you could identify a lot of early signs of skin cancers.

We use a very handy acronym. It's called ABCDE:

  • A stands for Asymmetric.
  • Any mole that kind of looks irregular, that's B.
  • C is uneven color
  • D is for diameter - anything that looks greater than a little pea size, about six millimeters
  • E means evolving - evolving color or evolving shapes.

How do you reduce your risk of melanoma or skin cancer in general?

Use sun protection and wear sunscreen. I would say a spectrum SPF of at least greater than 30 or plus. Apply that every 2 hours if you go out, and wear a hat, and wear long-sleeved shirts or pants, if possible.

A tanning bed? 

You’re getting nothing but UVA damage to your skin and tanning beds can cause skin aging as well. It's not skin cancer, but it's not good.

But in the event you do get skin cancer, how do you treat it?

If it's early stage, basically surgical removal. It can be cured if it's early stage.

Now obviously, if cancer has spread, most of those cases are melanoma. Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It only accounts for about 1% of all skin cancer and is responsible for most of skin cancer deaths. Because melanoma has a high risk of spreading to other parts of the body, including vital organs.

If the melanoma spreads to lymph nodes or to other parts of the organ, then we have to consider immunotherapy.

How does this work?

Basically, it's a form of cancer therapy that can enhance your immune system's ability to recognize and destroy melanoma cells more effectively. In general, cancer cells are our own cells, but they become mutated, so they actually endanger people's life. They can trick the body by sending out false signals, telling the body that they are not harmful. What immunotherapy can do is disrupt those signals. Therefore, they can educate our own immune cells to recognize and kill melanoma cells very effectively.

Would this be used for anyone with skin cancer or just for certain cases? 

This is just for melanoma. It started with melanoma that has spread to other parts of your body. But now we can use the immunotherapy to prevent melanoma recurrence.

What is the survival rate for this approach?

The difference is significant. It's probably increased by about 40 to 50% for the patient that received the immunotherapy.


CDC: Skin Cancer
Texas Oncology: Skin Cancer

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.