When you see a dermatologist for a skin concern, you may be told you have “pre” skin cancer or a “suspicious” mole. Hearing this can be a little scary. What does your doctor mean? Let’s take a closer look at some troubling skin conditions that aren’t quite cancer, but that you need to be vigilant about.
Actinic Keratosis (AK) can turn into cancer
One common precancerous skin condition is actinic keratosis, often referred to by its acronym, AK. AKs are dry, scaly or crusty patches of skin that may be more easily felt than seen because of their rough texture. To the eye, AKs may appear as small, red, light tan, dark tan, pink, white or flesh-colored patches. They can be a combination of colors or they may not be noticeable at all.
AKs tend to occur in easily sun-damaged areas of skin such as the face, lips, scalp, ears, shoulders, neck, hands and forearms. About five to ten percent of AKs develop into a form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma, which, left untreated, can be serious and even life-threatening.
How is actinic keratosis treated?
When an AK is treated, the risk of it developing into cancer is removed. There are a few ways AKs can be treated. Your dermatologist may recommend one of the following treatment options:
- Chemical peels. A gentle chemical causes the upper layers of the skin, including the lesion, to peel off.
- Cryosurgery. A quick burst of liquid nitrogen freezes the tissue.
- Curettage and desiccation. The lesion is scraped off and a chemical agent helps stop any bleeding.
- Laser surgery. Laser energy vaporizes the lesion.
- Topical medications. A cream or ointment is applied to the lesion to make it go away.
- Photodynamic therapy. A light sensitizing agent is applied to the skin before a special UV light is beamed at the skin.
- Combination treatment. Your doctor may recommend a combination of treatments for your AK.
Rarely, atypical moles can develop into skin cancer
During a skin check, your doctor may find a suspicious mole, also called an atypical nevus or dysplastic nevus (nevi is plural). Rarely, these moles can develop into melanoma, which is why your doctor may recommend a biopsy.
Atypical moles usually exhibit one of the ABCDE warning signs of melanoma. If you’ve been diagnosed with an atypical mole, here are some things you should know:
- An atypical mole is not cancer, but having these types of moles is a risk factor for developing melanoma.
- Having atypical moles plus a family history of melanoma increases your risk of developing melanoma.
- Having atypical moles plus any of these other risk factors also increases your risk: fair skin, light eyes, light hair, freckles, many moles, personal history of melanoma or nonmelanoma skin cancer, inability to tan, history of sunburns, and unusual skin reactions to sun exposure or tanning beds.
- People with Atypical Mole Syndrome are especially at risk of developing melanoma. Atypical Mole Syndrome means you have all three of the following risk factors: 100+ moles, one or more moles that are 8 mm or larger in diameter, and one or more atypical moles.
- People with 10 or more atypical moles have 12 times the risk of developing melanoma.
You can protect yourself from developing skin cancer
While you may be at higher risk of developing skin cancer, that doesn’t mean you will. Even if you have precancerous skin lesions or atypical moles, there are things you can do to protect yourself from developing skin cancer. It’s not too late! One of the most important things you can do is to continue to see your dermatologist for regular skin checks. That way, if skin cancer does develop, your doctor can catch it early, when it is most treatable.
Some people are nervous about having a skin check. You can read our blog post on what to expect during a skin check to help you better understand what those appointments look like. Skin checks at Arizona Dermatology are comfortable, easy, and can give you peace of mind.
You can also protect yourself by doing regular at-home skin checks, using sunscreen daily, and covering up with protective clothing when you are outside.
If you have any questions about suspicious growths on your skin, AKs, or atypical moles, don’t wait. Make an appointment with us today!