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Health & Wellness: Early detection provides pivotal impact in treating skin cancer

By Doug Fox - Special to the Daily Herald | May 29, 2024

Stock photo

The statistics on skin cancer are indeed sobering. But don’t take my word for it. Following up on Skin Cancer Awareness Month, which occurs annually in May, let’s look at the following statistics released by The Skin Cancer Foundation:

  • More than two people die from skin cancer every hour in the U.S.
  • One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70.
  • It’s estimated that the number of new melanoma cases diagnosed in 2024 will increase by 7.3%.
  • The number of melanoma deaths is expected to increase by 3.8% in 2024.
  • An estimated 200,340 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2024. Of those, 99,700 cases will be in situ (noninvasive) and confined to the epidermis (the top layer of skin), and 100,640 cases will be invasive, penetrating the epidermis into the skin’s second layer (the dermis). Of the invasive cases, 59,170 will occur in men, and 41,470 will occur in women.
  • An estimated 8,290 people will die of melanoma in 2024. Of those, 5,430 will be men, and 2,860 will be women.
  • Five or more sunburns doubles your risk of developing melanoma.
  • Melanoma cases are the fifth-most common form of cancer in the U.S., behind breast, prostate, lung and colon. This ranking excludes basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, which are not required to be reported to cancer registries.

If you are reading those stats and thinking, “I really should pick up the phone and set my annual skin cancer screening appointment with my dermatologist,” then you are on the right track. Early detection is indeed the best defense against the serious effects of skin cancer.

“One of the key skin cancer statistics is that the five-year survival rate for melanoma when detected early jumps to 99%,” said Dr. April Larson, chief medical officer of PathologyWatch, a Utah-based company specializing in digital dermatopathology services. “Early detection is one way we’re working to achieve our goal to preserve and extend life for patients while reducing the cost of health care.”

Understanding skin cancer is the first step toward recognizing the impact of early detection. Let’s also look at how regular self-examinations, annual screenings and emerging technology all aid in the battle against skin cancer.

Understanding skin cancer

Skin cancer develops when skin cells undergo abnormal changes, typically triggered by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or artificial sources like tanning beds. There are three main sources of skin cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, which originates from thin, flat cells that form the top layer of the epidermis.
  • Basal cell carcinoma, which originates from the basal layer of cells in the epidermis.
  • Melanoma, which originates from cells that make melanin and are found in the lower part of the epidermis. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more pigment and cause the skin to darken.

The first two, basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, constitute the two most common types of skin cancer. They can both typically be cured, but they can be disfiguring and costly to treat.

Melanoma, on the other hand, causes the most deaths because it frequently spreads to other parts of the body, including vital organs.

Impact of early detection

Early detection plays a pivotal role in skin cancer treatment. When detected at an early stage, skin cancer is highly treatable, with a high likelihood of successful outcomes.

Early diagnosis can allow for less-invasive treatment options, reduce the risk of complications and even prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. Moreover, early detection significantly improves the patient’s quality of life by minimizing the need for aggressive therapies and preserving healthy tissue.

While early detection drastically improves a patient’s survival rate, the National Library of Medicine notes in a report that 50% of cancers are at an advanced stage when they are diagnosed and that technological improvements will be key to understanding the biology and trajectory of pre- and early cancer to identify cases that require intervention.

“Insights must be translated into sensitive and specific early detection technologies and be appropriately evaluated to support practical clinical implementation,” the report states. “Interdisciplinary collaboration is key; advances in technology and biological understanding highlight that it is time to accelerate early detection research and transform cancer survival.”

Technology advancing early detection

Transforming early detection and treatment technology is where companies like PathologyWatch — with headquarters based in Murray — are making a global impact through digital dermatopathology. With an intuitive digital pathology solution that includes access to top-tier dermatopathologists and a streamlined clinical workflow, PathologyWatch combines state-of-the-art technology and clinical decision-making to deliver enhanced patient care.

“PathologyWatch has been at the forefront of digital transformation in skin pathology,” said April Larson of PathologyWatch. “This enables doctors to have so many more tools than they’ve ever had previously.” As evidence of its expected growth and impact in digital dermatopathology, PathologyWatch was acquired in November by Australia-based Sonic Healthcare for $150 million.

“Sonic Healthcare laboratories provide care to more than 120 million patients every year,” Larson said, “so we’re excited to be able to apply our technology over a greater global footprint than ever before. We anticipate that in the next several years, this technology will benefit tens of millions of patients every year, which is thrilling.”

Currently, for the majority of people getting skin cancer checked in Utah through outpatient services, their samples are processed through PathologyWatch labs. As technology continues to emerge, Larson says, diagnosis and treatment options should only continue to improve.

“Both diagnostic and prognostic pathology will be revolutionized by machine-learning techniques. In the future, we will be able to predict which melanomas will be more serious, which will help patients who need them get treatments and follow-up, as well as decreasing unnecessary procedures in others,” Larson said. “We are most excited about the application of these emerging technologies.”

Methods of early detection

Regular self-examinations and annual screenings by a dermatologist are essential for early detection of skin cancer. Self-examinations involve closely monitoring moles, freckles and any changes in the skin’s appearance. Any suspicious growths or changes should be promptly reported to a health care professional.

Performing a self-examination is simple and can be done at home using the ABCDE rule:

  • Asymmetry: Check for moles or lesions with irregular shapes.
  • Border: Look for uneven or jagged edges.
  • Color: Note changes in color, especially if a mole becomes darker or exhibits multiple shades.
  • Diameter: Pay attention to any growth in size, particularly if it exceeds the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Evolution: Monitor changes over time, such as itching, bleeding and changing in shape or size.

It’s still crucial to schedule regular skin cancer screenings with a dermatologist, especially for individuals with a history of excessive sun exposure, a family history of skin cancer or fair skin. With a better understanding of skin cancer and the impact of early detection aided by self-examination and advancements in technology, people will be much better armed in the prevention and fight against this pervasive disease.

Doug Fox is a project manager at Fullcast, a Silicon Slopes-based, end-to-end RevOps platform that allows companies to design, manage and track the performance of their revenue-generating teams.

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