Are you concerned about a spot on your leg? Has it gone dark or changed shape? Maybe it's itchy or irritable when it wasn't before.
Whenever we go outside, we are exposed to UV radiation that is carried in the sun's rays (yes, even on a cloudy day). While small amounts of UV radiation are not necessarily harmful (they can even be beneficial to human health) too much can cause damage to the skin.
In small amounts, this damage is absorbed by our body's production of melanin, which we know as a tan or as brown sun spots. Beyond that, however, the skin can burn and blister, and the affected skin can produce spots, moles or lesions that can develop into skin cancer.
It is important to be aware that skin cancer can happen anywhere and that the same skin changes we might notice on our face in the mirror or on our hands throughout day, we might miss on our legs. However, skin cancer is of equal concern wherever it is found on the body.
Types of Skin Cancer on the Leg
There are three main types of skin cancer on the leg.
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma makes up roughly 70% of non melanoma skin cancer (also known as keratinocyte cancer) cases. Basal cell carcinoma usually grows slowly, but detecting it early is still vital.
Basal cell carcinoma signs include patches of skin that change to develop growths, lesions or sores. The appearance of these lesions may differ, from shiny pink or red glossy bumps to irritated patches of skin or open sores that don't heal.
If basal cell carcinoma is caught early, it can usually be treated quickly and easily.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for most of the remaining 30% of non melanoma skin cancer cases. Like basal cell carcinoma, it commonly occurs on the most sun exposed areas of the body. People with darker skin have a higher chance of developing squamous cell carcinoma on skin with lower sun exposure.
Squamous cell carcinoma signs include many of the signs of basal cell carcinoma, but may also present as rough, wart-like skin with a crusted surface. Squamous cell carcinoma may itch or bleed like a scab that doesn't heal.
Bowen's disease is a very early form of skin cancer, and is also known as squamous cell carcinoma in situ. Bowen's disease often appears as a rough, red scaly patch of skin that may be itchy and grow over time. It is sometimes confused for other skin conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema.
Melanoma skin cancer
Melanoma skin cancer is the least common type of skin cancer, but it is considered to be the most dangerous. Melanoma skin cancer forms in skin cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin, which controls our skin colour and causes our skin to tan or develop sun spots.
Melanoma signs can vary, but it is a good idea to get any new or unusual changes to your skin checked by your doctor. Left untreated, melanoma skin cancer can travel to other parts of the body and continue to grow, even if the original lesion is removed. Melanoma skin cancer can then be carried in your blood vessels where it can then metastasise in other parts of the body.
Nodular melanoma skin cancer may appear as a raised, dome-shaped growth that is dark coloured and firm to the touch. Nodular melanoma skin cancer can grow very quickly, forming in just a few weeks or months and spread to the deeper layers of skin.
Risk Factors for Leg Skin Cancer
The risk factors for skin cancer on the leg are similar to the risks affecting other parts of the body. Skin on the legs may be exposed to more sun than other parts of the body and so it is important to regularly check your legs for signs of skin cancer.
- Blistering sunburns. Exposure to UV rays triggers the release of melanin in our skin in the form of tan. However, overexposure can cause direct damage to skin cells in the form of sun burn and blistering. This damage can be replicated as cells divide and spread to the surrounding skin.
- Family history. Having a family history of skin cancers and melanoma skin cancer may put you at increased risk of developing them yourself. Knowing your normal skin is the best way to determine if there are sudden changes that require a doctor's attention.
- Skin tone. Fair skinned people may be more at risk as their skin reacts more sensitively to UV rays. Fair skin might produce more melanin to protect itself from the sun, and so sudden changes may be more visible.
- Weak immune system. Potential cancer is formed during the natural breakdown of cells and we have them in our bodies at all times. Most of the time, our immune system is able to destroy these rogue cells before they can become a problem. A weakened immune system, however, might not catch these cells before they clump together and form cancers.
Signs and Symptoms of Skin Cancer on Legs
The signs and symptoms of skin cancer on the leg are similar to the signs of skin cancers in other parts of the body. Skin cancer can present in many different ways, so it is important to get any changes or growths checked by your doctor, particularly on skin exposed to the sun.
The first sign of skin cancer on the leg may be nothing more than a spot or a small lump. Skin cancer typically forms on skin ordinarily exposed to the UV rays of the sun, but this is not always the case.
The signs of skin cancer are diverse, but skin growths that develop scaly patches, uneven borders, itchiness or changes in colour to red, pink or brown or black may be a sign of basal cell skin cancers or squamous cell skin cancer.
A dark spot, particularly one that grows, bleeds, is irritable or does not heal, may be a sign of melanoma skin cancer.
The ABCDE rule
The ABCDE rule is a good way to determine whether skin changes might have some of the signs of skin cancer.
- Asymmetry: The spot or mole is an irregular shape and does not match the other half.
- Border: The edges of the spot or mole are irregular and jagged or ragged.
- Colour: The spot or mole is made up of multiple colours, rather than just one even colour.
- Diameter: The spot or mole has a diameter larger than 6 millimetres (about the size of a pencil eraser).
- Evolving: The spot or mole is changing in some unusual way that is different to the way your skin normally is. This could be a change in your skin cells which could develop into skin cancer.
Actinic keratosis is a precursor to skin cancer that your doctor may decide to treat before it can become cancerous. Actinic keratoses are small spots of sun damage that present as rough and scaly patches of skin that may, over time, develop into lesions and skin cancer.
Additionally, normal moles can change due to excessive sun exposure. Skin cancer on the leg may be missed, as it is not a part of the body that we typically examine closely, compared with our face or hands.
The main signs or symptoms of skin cancer are unusual changes to your skin. If you spot any, it is best to check with your doctor. Early diagnosis is important as most skin cancers can be easily treated if caught early.
How legs are treated for skin cancer
Treatment options are varied and will depend on the stage and the spread. Your doctor will discuss the appropriate treatment options with you prior to treatment.
- Surgery: Your doctor may recommend that the best option is localised surgery, where the patch of skin cancer is simply excised and removed.
- Mohs surgery: Each layer of skin is cut away until a layer is found where skin cancer is not present.
- Topical therapy: One of the non-invasive treatment options, your doctor may prescribe creams or gels to apply to areas of skin cancer on the leg.
- Image-guided SRT (superficial radiotherapy): A type of radiation treatment that uses low-level x-ray energy to kill spots of cancer.
- Chemotherapy: The use of anti-cancer drugs in a regimen to destroy cancer cells.
Prevent skin cancer on the leg – get checked today
There are a number of ways we can reduce our risk of skin cancer on the leg, but the best way is regular check ups with your doctor, where they can examine your body closely for signs of potential cancer.
- Sunscreen: We all know to slop the sunscreen on our faces, necks, arms and shoulders, but how many of us think to cover our legs too? Applying a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF30 (though SPF50 is recommended) is a good way to protect your legs.
- Protective clothing: Wear protective clothing, such as long pants to cover the lower legs.
Early detection of skin cancer is vital and routine check ups can greatly reduce the risk of skin cancer developing. The signs of skin cancer vary, and any strange spots on your legs or feet should be shown to your doctor immediately.
Book your skin check at a SunDoctors clinic near you. Our doctors are experienced and highly trained in skin cancer prevention, detection and treatment. You don't need a referral and can book online or call us today.