What are precancers?
Precancers (also called actinic keratoses) are scaly or crusty skin lesions that have been caused directly or indirectly by damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. They typically appear on the areas of the patient’s body that get the most sun exposure such as the face, the lips, the back of the hands, and even on bald patches on the scalp. Precancers often appear as elevated growths that may be rough in texture, sometimes resembling warts. When left untreated, some precancers will develop into a more serious condition called squamous cell carcinoma, which is one of the most common forms of skin cancer.
What is the relationship between precancers and sun damage?
Many people love laying out in the sun to get a tan, but what most people do not know is that too much sun exposure causes wrinkles and age spots, by accelerating the aging process. Sun damage also poses an increased risk for patients to develop skin cancer. Most of the skin changes that we think are due to the aging process are actually caused by sun exposure. Over time, the ultraviolet rays from the sun will begin to damage and breakdown the fibers in the skin called elastin, making the skin lose its elasticity and firmness. As more sun damage is inflicted onto the skin, it also begins to lose its immune function and becomes one of the primary causes for the development of precancers.
How are precancers treated?
Chemical peels – Treating sun damaged skin with a chemical peel will effectively burn off the top layer of the skin so that the damage is peeled away and new and healthy skin can grow in its place.
Cryosurgery – If the patient only has a few precancerous lesions, liquid nitrogen can be used to freeze them off.
Topical creams – The topical use of fluorouracil, a chemotherapy cream, can destroy precancers by blocking their essential cellular functions. Other formulations containing Imiquimod are able to stimulate the immune system in order to reject and attack the precancerous growth and facilitate its removal. Soloraze gel is another topical medication, composed of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory components, that is approved to treat precancers.
Photodynamic therapy – This approach is a two-step technique that, first, makes use of a special chemical applied directly onto the skin to increase its sensitivity to light, and then is followed by light exposure to destroy precancerous cells.