Skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer in the United States, is the result of the abnormal growth of skin cells. Cancer can affect skin anywhere on the body, but most frequently appears on skin that is exposed to the sun. There are more than a million new cases of skin cancer in the United States each year.

Causes of Skin Cancer

Every day, skin cells die and new ones form to replace them in a process controlled by DNA. Skin cancer can form when this process does not work properly because of damage to DNA. New cells may form when they are not needed, or older cells may not die, both of which can cause a growth of tissue known as a tumor. DNA damage is often a result of ultraviolet radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps. In some cases, skin cancer affects areas of the skin that have not been exposed to the sun. Certain factors, such as fair skin, moles, a weakened immune system, heredity and age, also increase the risk of skin cancer.

Types of Skin Cancer

There are three major types of skin cancer, and they affect different layers of the skin. They are named for the different types of skin cells that become cancerous.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell skin cancer occurs in the basal cell layer of the skin and is the most common type of skin cancer in people with fair skin. It commonly occurs on areas of the skin that have been exposed to the sun, such as the face. It rarely spreads to other parts of the body.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the squamous cells, and is the most common type of skin cancer in people with dark skin, who typically get it in places, such as the legs or feet, that have not been exposed to the sun. In people with fair skin, it usually occurs in sun-exposed areas such as on the face, head, ears and neck. Squamous cell skin cancer can spread to other parts of the body.

Melanoma

Melanoma is the most aggressive type of cancer, and the most likely to spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma occurs in the melanocyte (pigment) cells of the skin, and can form on any part of the body, regardless of past sun exposure.

Symptoms of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is often identified as a new or changed growth on the skin of the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands or legs. Although these are common areas for skin-cancer growths to form, they can occur anywhere, and manifest themselves as the following:

  • Pearly or waxy bump
  • Flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion
  • Firm, red nodule
  • Crusted, flat lesion
  • Large brown spot with darker speckles
  • Shiny, firm bumps

A mole that changes shape or color can also indicate skin cancer.

Diagnosis of Skin Cancer

To diagnose skin cancer, a doctor reviews all symptoms, and checks the skin for any unusual growths or abnormal patches of skin. If skin cancer is suspected, a biopsy is performed on the growth or area of skin in question. Once the results of the biopsy are reviewed, the type of cancer can be determined, and a treatment plan created. Those who experience any skin changes, or have changes to existing moles or birthmarks, should see a doctor as soon as possible; early detection is key in successfully treating skin cancer.

Treatment for Skin Cancer

Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type, size and location of the tumor. Most options include the removal of the entire growth, and are effective forms of treatment. Removal procedures are usually simple, requiring only a local anesthetic in an outpatient setting. Some of the treatment options for skin cancer include the following:

  • Freezing
  • Excision
  • Laser therapy
  • Mohs surgery

Depending on the stage and severity of the skin cancer, in addition to removal of the growth, chemotherapy and radiation may be recommended.

Prevention of Skin Cancer

Although not every case of skin cancer can be prevented, the best way to avoid it is to protect skin from the sun. Recommendations for preventing skin cancer include the following:

  • Limit exposure to the skin, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Always wear sun screen with an SPF of at least 15
  • Wear a hat in the sun
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants
  • Avoid tanning beds and salons

Performing routine self-exams to spot skin changes, and seeing a dermatologist for a full-body screening on a regular basis, is also recommended.

Skin Cancer FAQs

Skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer in the United States, is the result of an abnormal growth of skin cells. Cancer can affect skin anywhere on the body, but most frequently appears on skin that is exposed to the sun. There are more than a million new cases of skin cancer in the United States each year.

What causes skin cancer?

Every day, skin cells die and new ones form to replace them in a process controlled by DNA. Skin cancer can form when this process does not work properly because of damage to DNA. New cells may form when they are not needed, or older cells may not die, both of which can cause a growth of tissue known as a tumor. DNA damage is often a result of ultraviolet radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps.

What are the types of skin cancer?

There are three main types of skin cancer. Basal cell skin cancer occurs in the basal cell layer of the skin, and is the most common type of skin cancer in people with fair skin. Squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the squamous cells, and is the most common type of skin cancer in people with dark skin. Melanoma is the most aggressive type of skin cancer, and the most likely to spread to other parts of the body.

What are the symptoms of skin cancer?

Skin cancer is often identified as a new or changed growth on the skin of the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands or legs. Although these are common areas for skin-cancer growths to form, they can occur anywhere.

How is skin cancer diagnosed?

To diagnose skin cancer, a doctor reviews all symptoms, and checks the skin for any unusual growths or abnormal patches of skin. If skin cancer is suspected, a biopsy is performed on the growth or area of skin in question. Once the results of the biopsy are reviewed, the type of cancer can be determined, and a treatment plan created.

What are the different treatments for skin cancer?

Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type, size and location of the tumor. Most options include the removal of the entire growth, and are effective forms of treatment. Removal procedures are usually simple, requiring only a local anesthetic in an outpatient setting. In addition to excision, other treatment options for skin cancer include freezing, laser therapy and Mohs surgery. Depending on the stage and severity of the skin cancer, in addition to the removal of the growth, chemotherapy and radiation may be recommended.

How is skin cancer prevented?

Although not every case of skin cancer can be prevented, the best way to avoid it is to protect skin from ultraviolet rays.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma a common type of skin cancer that occurs in the basal cell layer of the skin. It is the most common type of skin cancer in people with fair skin, and it usually occurs on areas of the skin that have been exposed to the sun, such as the face. Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads to other parts of the body but is still a serious condition that requires prompt treatment.

Causes of Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma affects the top layer of the skin known as the epidermis and occurs when the skin cell process does not work correctly. New skin cells may form when the body doesn't need them, and old or damaged cells don't die as they should. This buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue which develops into a tumor. Most cases are caused by long-term exposure to ultraviolet rays but people with fair skin and a personal or family history of skin cancer may also be at a greater risk. Age may also be a factor, as most cases of basal cell carcinoma are diagnosed in people over the age of 50.

Symptoms of Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma may appear on the skin as a new growth that bleeds easily or does not heal quickly, and may be white, pink, flesh-colored or brown. Additional symptoms of basal cell carcinoma may include:

  • Smooth or waxy bump
  • Flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion
  • Firm, red nodule
  • Crusted, flat lesion
  • Rough and scaly patch red or brown of skin
  • Existing mole that changes shape or color

Treatment of Basal Cell Carcinoma

Treatment for basal cell carcinoma often includes the removal of the growth. Removal methods can vary based on the size,depth and location of the cancer and may include::

  • Surgical excision
  • Freezing
  • Laser Surgery
  • Cryosurgery
  • Mohs surgery
  • Electrodesiccation and curettage

Basal cell carcinoma that does not extend very far into the skin, may be treated with creams or ointments. Certain topical medications such as imiquimod and fluorouracil may be used topically for several weeks to treat certain basal cell carcinomas that are limited to the surface of the skin.

Prevention of Basal Cell Carcinoma

Although not all cases of basal cell carcinoma can be prevented, the best protection from skin cancer is protection from the sun. The following recommendations may help in preventing skin cancer:

  • Limit exposure to the skin
  • Always wear sun screen
  • Wear a hat in the sun
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants
  • Avoid tanning beds

Individuals are advised to perform routine self skin checks to spot any skin changes as early as possible. It is important to practice preventive measures and see a dermatologist for a full body screening on a regular basis. Basal cell carcinomas are often a recurring condition,so preventive measures should be taken to prevent a recurrence.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is a common form of skin cancer that occurs in the squamous cells of the skin. It is usually caused by excessive, long-term exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun and most frequently affects people over the age of 50. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer in people with dark skin. In dark skinned individuals, it commonly occurs in places that have not been exposed to the sun such as the legs or feet. While individuals with fair skin may have an occurrence of squamous cell carcinoma in sun exposed areas, such as on the face, head, ears and neck, it is possible to get squamous cell carcinoma on any part of the body. Squamous cell skin cancer may spread to other parts of the body, so early detection is extremely important in treating this condition.

Risk Factors for Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Factors that may increase the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma include:

  • Fair skin
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • History of sunburns
  • Use of tanning beds
  • History of previous skin cancer
  • Weakened immune system

Symptoms of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma commonly develops as a growth on the skin, usually in sun-exposed areas. These growths can vary in appearance and may appear as a new growth or a change in appearance to a pre-existing mole or growth. Symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma may include:

  • A rough or scaly lump on the skin
  • Dome shaped or crusty growth
  • A sore that does not heal
  • Flat, reddish, scaly patch
  • A mole or growth that bleeds

Treatment of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma that does not extend very far into the skin, may be treated with creams or ointments. Certain anti-cancer medications may be used topically for several weeks to treat cases of squamous cell carcinoma that are limited to the surface of the skin. Most other cases can be completely removed through minimally invasive procedures that may include freezing, surgical excision, laser therapy. Removal methods vary based on the size, depth and location of the cancer and additional methods may include:

  • Cryosurgery
  • Mohs surgery
  • Electrodesiccation and curettage

Radiation therapy may be an option for treating deeper tumors, or for treating squamous cell carcinoma in people who cannot undergo surgery. Squamous cell carcinoma can usually be treated successfully if detected early and removed quickly

Prevention of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Although not all cases of squamous cell carcinoma can be prevented, the best protection from skin cancer is protection from the sun. The following recommendations may help in preventing skin cancer:

  • Limit exposure to the skin
  • Always wear sun screen
  • Wear a hat in the sun
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants
  • Avoid tanning beds

Individuals are advised to perform routine self skin checks to spot any skin changes as early as possible. It is important to practice preventive measures and see a dermatologist for a full body screening on a regular basis.

Melanoma

Melanoma is a potentially life-threatening skin cancer of the melanocytes, the cells that make melanin (brown pigment). Melanoma's fatality rate is higher than that of basal cell and squamous cell cancers; it accounts for more than 80 percent of all skin-cancer deaths. Early detection and treatment greatly increase the likelihood of cure. Performing a self-examination in front of a mirror is the best way to detect melanoma in its early stages. If melanoma is suspected, a doctor should be contacted immediately.

Symptoms of Melanoma

Early signs of melanoma are related to changes in shape or color of existing moles, or the development of new ones. Early signs of melanoma are generally identified by the mnemonic ABCDE:

  • Asymmetry
  • Border irregularity
  • Color variation
  • Diameter greater than 6 mm
  • Evolution over time

Early signs of melanoma may develop from existing moles or may resemble moles. The majority of melanomas are black or brown, but can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white. During later stages, a melanoma may itch or bleed. If a melanoma is diagnosed and treated in its early stages, it is usually curable; however, during later stages, it can rapidly spread to other parts of the body, become hard to treat, and possibly be fatal.

Causes of Melanoma

What causes melanoma is not known, although there are many suspected risk factors, including:

  • Familial tendency to develop freckles or prominent/atypical moles
  • Presence of many freckles, moles, large moles or atypical moles
  • Family history of melanoma
  • Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation
  • Overexposure to sunlight prior to age 18
  • Caucasian ancestry, with fair skin
  • Sun sensitivity or poor tanning ability
  • Immune-system deficiency
  • Previous melanoma

Although Caucasian ancestry is a suspected risk factor, all races and skin tones are susceptible to melanoma.

Treatment for Melanoma

Treatment for melanoma depends on its location, thickness and progression, as well as the patient's age, health, medical history and preferences. A biopsy is often performed to determine the extent of the cancer. Most often, the appropriate treatment is surgery, followed by adjuvant therapy, including interferon and vaccines, for patients at great risk for the cancer's spreading throughout the body. Other common options are chemotherapy and radiation therapy, as well as biologic therapy, which includes interferon, cytokines, monoclonal antibodies and vaccines, to improve the body's self-defense abilities.

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