Breast cancer patients need to be especially vigilant about doing body checks for skin cancer

Having any type of cancer can put people more at risk for skin cancer, and a D.C. dermatologist believes Breast Cancer Awareness Month should include warnings for survivors to be especially vigilant.

“There have been several studies showing that an earlier diagnosis of breast cancer below the age of 50 can potentially increase the risk for melanoma — the most dangerous of all skin cancers — up to 40 to 50% compared to those without breast cancer,” said Dr. Adam Friedman, professor and chair of dermatology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Melanoma is usually curable if it’s caught and treated early. Once it has spread, it becomes more difficult to treat and can be deadly.

Less serious skin cancers are also more likely among people who have previously experienced any type of cancer.

“Both basal and squamous cell carcinomas are not inherently dangerous, but can be locally damaging to the skin and do need to be cut out,” Friedman said.

So, what’s going on? Why does having one cancer make people susceptible to other cancers?

“The direct connection between having a diagnosis of breast cancer and the risk for melanoma is still being studied. However, certain gene mutations such as BRCA2 and CDKN2A may be implicated in connecting these two cancers,” Friedman said.

But separate from the genetic component, the treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy radiation, can increase the risk, especially for skin cancer.

“Any medicine that can impact the immune system, which — while also fighting infection, also looks throughout the body for abnormal cells — can allow damaged cells that should be kicked to the curb to grow without control,” Friedman explained.

Other medicines, depending on how they work, can influence how cells grow and die, and that, too, can influence cancer.

“If your immune system dropped the ball once, with respect to identifying abnormal cells and they turn into cancer, there’s the risk for that to happen again,” he said.

“I tell my patients that having one skin cancer increases the risk of other skin cancers, and having other forms of cancer can also increase the risk of skin cancer. Therefore, yearly full body skin checks for cancer are a must,” Friedman said.

Appealing for people to be vigilant Friedman said, “If you notice a new or changing mole, it is of the utmost importance to get it evaluated by a board certified dermatologist.”

You can see examples of how to perform a skin self-exam on the American Academy of Dermatology Association website.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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