“The most serious, increasingly common type of skin cancer, melanoma, can first emerge on the feet,” says Dr. Matthew Garoufalis, a podiatrist and president of the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA). “One reason for this may be that many people who are vigilant about using sunscreen on their faces and arms still forget to apply protection to their feet. Exposure to UV rays is a leading cause of skin cancer.”
More than 2 million cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed this year in the United States, and it is the most common type of cancer in the world, says the American Academy of Dermatology. While sun exposure is a main contributor to skin cancers on other parts of the body, and can be a factor when melanoma occurs on the feet, many cancers that affect the feet can be more often linked to anything that causes increased cell turnover, including viruses, chemical exposure, chronic inflammation and chronic ulceration. Heredity may also play a role, the APMA reports.
With the arrival of summer and more time outdoors and on-the-go, it’s a good idea to think about protecting and monitoring all aspects of foot health, including cancer risks. The APMA offers some important information about cancers of the feet:
The skin of the feet often gets overlooked during routine physicals. Be sure to ask your doctor to include a close inspection of your feet in your annual physical, and do your own routine checks regularly.
Take steps to protect your feet from sources of skin cancer. Always apply sunscreen to your feet when you wear sandals or flip-flops – including between the toes and on the soles. To reduce exposures to harmful viruses, avoid going barefoot in public areas such as pool decks, hotel rooms or corridors, and on beaches and boardwalks. Never go barefoot when using household chemicals such as weed killers or strong cleansers. If your feet become painful or the skin inflamed, don’t try to wait out the irritation; see a podiatrist right away.
Learn about the types of cancers that affect the feet, and know their warning signs and symptoms. Common foot cancers include:
* Basal cell carcinoma – The least aggressive form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma causes local damage but rarely spreads. On the feet and lower legs, basal cell carcinoma often looks like non-cancerous skin tumors. On other parts of the body, basal cell cancers may manifest as pearly white bumps or patches that ooze or crust over, similar to an open sore.
* Squamous cell carcinoma – The most common form of skin cancer on the feet, squamous cell carcinoma usually does not spread. When advanced, however, it can become more aggressive and spread throughout the body. Squamous cell cancer often first appears as a small, scaly bump or plaque. The cancer may be itchy and resemble a plantar wart, fungal infection, eczema, ulcer or other common dermatological problem.
* Melanoma – The deadliest form of skin cancer – and the form that is gaining prevalence at an alarming rate – melanoma most often requires surgical treatment. Catching it early is vital to a good outcome for patients, as melanoma can spread throughout the body, affecting the lymphatic system and blood vessels. Melanomas may be found on the tops of the feet, on the soles and even, occasionally, beneath a toenail.
This type of skin cancer often begins as a small brown-black spot or bump, but a third of cases may appear pink or red instead. It’s easy to mistake melanoma for a harmless mole, so look for asymmetry, irregular borders, changes in color and size, or a size greater than 6 millimeters in diameter. Melanomas can look like a host of other things – including blood blisters, plantar warts, common ulcers and even bruises – so it’s important to have a podiatrist, dermatologist or your family doctor take a look at anything you find suspicious.
“Skin cancers on the feet and lower legs can look very different than skin cancers on other areas of the body,” Garoufalis says. “Podiatrists are uniquely trained as lower-extremity specialists, and are best equipped to help patients detect early and treat effectively both benign and malignant skin tumors on the feet and lower legs.”
Visit www.APMA.org to find a podiatrist in your area, and to learn more about foot health.