Skin cancer can happen to anyone, including Khloé Kardashian.
On Oct. 11, the 38-year-old reality TV star addressed on Instagram why she’s had a bandage on her cheek for so long. Turns out it’s to protect an incision that’s still healing following the removal of skin cancer from her face.
In a series of Instagram stories, Kardashian revealed that she noticed a small bump on her cheek that just wouldn’t go away, which she attributed to nothing more than your basic zit. After seven months, she decided it was time to see a dermatologist.
Two biopsies later, it was confirmed: Kardashian had skin cancer and needed an “immediate operation.” (A biopsy is a collection of some skin from a suspicious lesion.)
“All my margins appear clear and now we are onto the healing process. So, here we are,” Kardashian wrote. “You’ll continue to see my bandages and when I’m allowed, you’ll probably see a scar (and an indentation in my cheek from the tumor being removed) but until then I hope you enjoy how fabulous I’m making these face bandages look.”
Dr. Tess Mauricio, the board-certified dermatologist who performed Kardashian’s first biopsy, told BuzzFeed News she can’t elaborate on her patient’s case, including what type of cancer was involved. However, she’s “really grateful” that Kardashian shared her journey and helped increase skin cancer awareness.
Kardashian also shared that she had a melanoma — the most serious and aggressive form of skin cancer — removed from her back when she was 19 years old. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that people who have had melanoma are about eight times more likely to develop it again compared to the general public.
“I am ONLY sharing this story with you so I can remind everyone to get checked, and frequently,” Kardashian wrote, adding that even people who aren’t predisposed to melanoma like she is “should be checking all the time.”
“I am someone who wears sunscreen every single day, religiously so no one is exempt from these things,” she continued. “Please take this seriously and do regular self-exams as well as your annual check-ups.”
How to check your skin for signs of cancer
About 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer — the most common type of cancer in the US — in their lifetime, the AAD says. About 9,500 people in the US are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.
Nine out of 10 cases turn out to be basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, which are easier to treat and less likely to spread. Melanoma is much less common but more dangerous.
The good news is that skin cancer is extremely treatable if found early. Data shows that about half of all melanoma cases are self-detected.
So it’s important to regularly scan your body for anything that looks unusual, keeping an eye out for changes in the size, shape, or color of a mole or skin lesion, new growths, a sore that doesn’t heal, or spots that suddenly become itchy or bleed.
“Self-awareness, self-detection, and surveillance is key,” said Mauricio, who founded M Beauty Clinic in San Diego and Beverly Hills.
Skin cancer can appear nearly anywhere on your body, including the palm of your hands, in between your toes, under your nails, and on your scalp, although it’s more commonly found in sun-exposed areas like the face.
Skin cancer can look different depending on the color of your skin; spots can be red or pink on whiter skin but brown or black on darker skin, said Dr. Bassel Mahmoud, a dermatologist and an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.
That’s why knowing your skin and body is critical. “My number one thing is that if you feel like something on your skin is new, you should consult your dermatologist and have them take a look at it,” Mahmoud told BuzzFeed News. “Many times it's probably going to be benign, but if the dermatologist thinks the lesion is suspicious, then we can do a simple biopsy and know 100% whether or not it's something that needs further work.”
What to know about melanoma
While all skin cancers should be addressed, it’s really melanoma that you want to keep a watchful eye for.
Melanoma rates in the US have been growing rapidly over the last 30 years, doubling from 1988 to 2019, particularly among older groups (rates have been dropping in people ages 30 and younger), and are expected to increase by over 50% by 2040.
More than 1 million people in the US are living with melanoma and estimates show that about 7,650 will die from the cancer this year, about 20 deaths per day.
Melanoma gets its name from the pigment melanin, so these skin cancers tend to be dark brown or black, although they can vary in color, and could be pink or red. They can look like a new mole or cause an existing one to grow, bleed, or change.
When doing your self-exams, Mauricio suggests remembering melanoma’s “ABCDE’s.”
- A stands for asymmetry, meaning both sides of your suspicious mole or lesion don’t match if you draw a line down the middle.
- B is for border; the margins of a new mark have jagged or poorly defined edges.
- C corresponds to color: Spots have various or new colors from one area to the next.
- D stands for diameter: Lesions larger than a pencil eraser are cause for concern, but spots smaller than that can also be melanoma.
- E is for evolution: Spots undergo unusual changes in shape, color, or size, or don’t match others around them.
(Here’s a video and step-by-step guide on how to check your skin for cancer.)
What to do if you find a suspicious spot on your skin
If a new or old spot, lesion, patch, or mark on your skin seems suspicious, you should make an appointment with a dermatologist right away.
If you do have melanoma, for example, waiting to see a dermatologist runs the risk of it spreading to your lymph nodes and internal organs. The average five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma has not yet spread to their lymph nodes is 99%, according to the AAD, but that number drops to 68% and 30% for those with cancer that's spread to nearby lymph nodes or to other parts of the body, respectively.
But sometimes it is worth waiting to see if a specific lesion or spot goes away on its own. Mauricio recommends waiting no more than two to four weeks, which is the amount of time it usually takes less serious skin conditions like acne to naturally disappear.
Skin cancers can look like ingrown hairs, patches of dry skin, freckles, or other skin conditions like rosacea, eczema, and dermatitis; a dermatologist can tell if a skin problem that is not resolving on its own or with other treatments is actually skin cancer.
If your lesion is staying the same or getting worse within that period, you should definitely get it examined.
And make sure you make an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist, Mauricio said. Sometimes primary care doctors may assume a spot or lesion is benign and perform certain treatments that can irritate it more or delay appropriate care, she said.
Your first visit with a dermatologist will involve a series of questions on your medical history, including whether anyone in your family has had skin cancer, and about the lesion, like how long it’s been there and if it’s changed shape or color.
A biopsy might be necessary and should be painless with the help of topical anesthetic. If the biopsy comes back positive for cancer, you’ll have to get it surgically removed, which is essentially a bigger biopsy procedure that extends a bit beyond the lesion’s margins to ensure all the cancer is removed.
Some groups of people do not have the option to remove skin cancer via surgery, because it isn’t possible, safe, or sufficient as a treatment, Mauricio said. This includes people who are immunocompromised, older people who may not have enough skin in certain areas to withstand surgery, or those who develop severe cancer on areas like their nose that may leave them with serious issues. Topical chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be better options in these circumstances.
After about one to two weeks, incisions from surgery should begin to heal like a normal cut, Mauricio said, adding that there are great ways to reduce scarring with a dermatologist’s help.
Who’s most at risk for skin cancer?
Anyone who spends too much (unprotected) time in the sun or uses indoor tanning beds — regardless of skin color, age, race or ethnicity, or underlying medical conditions — faces higher risks of developing any type of skin cancer.
UV radiation exposure is responsible for the majority of melanoma cases, and the AAD says that women under 30 years old are six times more likely to develop melanoma if they tan indoors. Sunscreen can reduce this risk.
Generally, people who have greater risks of developing skin cancer are those with blonde or red hair, a history of excessive sun exposure, a weakened immune system, 50 or more moles on their body or otherwise large moles, and a family history of skin, breast, prostate, or thyroid cancers.
People who burn easily in the sun, as well as those with a history of sunburns during childhood, also face high risks of developing skin cancer in their lifetime. Data shows that a person’s risk of getting skin cancer, both melanoma and other forms, increases by 80% and 68%, respectively, if they experience five or more blistering sunburns (when small fluid-filled bumps appear on the burned area) between 15 and 20 years of age.
People with darker skin should also be more careful when it comes to skin cancer because they can be at higher risk of developing it in areas that aren’t frequently exposed to the sun. For people with darker skin, about 60% to 70% of melanomas develop in the soles of their feet, inside their mouth, groin, underneath their nails, and palms of their hands.
This can explain why people of color are often diagnosed with skin cancer in its later stages. As a result, they are less likely to survive melanoma than people with lighter skin tones.
Skin cancer rates are still nearly 30 times higher in white people than in Black or Asian/Pacific Islander individuals, the AAD says.
Overall, men have higher rates of skin cancer than women.
How to prevent skin cancer
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to avoid indoor tanning beds and protect your skin when outdoors.
Skin protection means more than just sunscreen (which should be water-resistant and have an SPF of 30 or higher). It should also include seeking shade and wearing sunglasses with UV protection and protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts, pants, and a hat. Mahmoud calls it the “photoprotection package.”
If you’re especially at high risk for skin cancer, you can opt for clothing with a UV protection factor (UPF) number on the label.
Otherwise, keep up with your self-examinations so you can spot any abnormalities earlier on, experts say, and don’t forget to schedule your annual dermatology appointment.
Here’s how often dermatologists recommend you see them:
- People who have no history of melanoma or other skin cancers should visit a dermatologist once a year.
- People with a melanoma or other skin cancer history should go in two to three times a year, Mahmoud said, and then once a year after that if they remain cancer free.
- People recently treated for melanoma should be seen every three months for the first two years, and then two to three times a year after that.
- People with a family history of skin cancer should see a dermatologist twice a year.