What Is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is an uncontrolled, malignant overgrowth of cells that make up the skin. In the United States alone, more than 2 million people are diagnosed each year with nonmelanoma skin cancer, and more than 76,000 are diagnosed with melanoma, according to the American Cancer Society.
Types of Skin Cancer
The three most common forms of skin cancer are:
- Basal cell carcinoma accounts for approximately 80 percent of all skin cancers. This highly treatable cancer starts in the basal cell layer of the epidermis (the top layer of skin) and grows very slowly. Basal cell carcinoma usually appears as a small, shiny bump or nodule on the skin, mainly those areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, arms, hands and face. It most commonly occurs among people with light-colored eyes, hair and complexion.
- Squamous cell carcinoma, although more aggressive than basal cell carcinoma, is highly treatable. It accounts for about 20 percent of all skin cancers. Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as nodules or red, scaly patches of skin, and may be found on sun-exposed areas such as the face, ears, lips and mouth. However, if left untreated, squamous cell carcinoma can spread to other parts of the body. This type of skin cancer is usually found in fair-skinned people.
- Malignant melanoma accounts for a small percentage of all skin cancers but also the most deaths from skin cancer. Malignant melanoma starts in the melanocytes, cells that produce pigment in the skin. Malignant melanomas sometimes begin as an abnormal mole that then turns cancerous. This cancer may spread quickly. Malignant melanoma most often appears on fair-skinned men and women, but people with all skin types may be affected.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
Skin cancers develop most commonly from a combination of genetic predisposition and sun exposure. It is more common in fair-skinned people, especially those with blond or red hair, who have light-colored eyes. Skin cancer is rare in children. But, no one is safe from skin cancer. Other risk factors include:
- Family or personal history of melanoma
- Sun exposure
- Early childhood sunburns
- Many freckles
- Large or many ordinary moles
- An immunosuppressive disorder or weakened immune system (such as in people who have had organ transplants)
- Exposure to certain chemicals, like arsenic
- Radiation exposure
- HPV (human papillomavirus)
- Certain rare inherited conditions, such as basal cell nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome) or xeroderma pigmentosum
Signs and Symptoms of Skin Cancer
Skin cancers can appear very differently based on the type of cancer and the individual patient. Common symptoms of skin cancer include:
• New or changing moles (often in melanoma)
• New red bumps or scaly patches that do not go away on their own
• Nonhealing wounds
• Small, shiny bump or nodule on the skin, mainly in areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, arms, hands and face (basal cell carcinoma)
• Nodules or red, scaly patches of skin on sun-exposed areas such as the face, ears, lips and mouth (squamous cell carcinoma)
Preventing Skin Cancer
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends the following steps to help reduce your risk of skin cancer:
- Wear protective clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, when possible.
- Seek the shade when appropriate, especially when the sun's rays are the strongest, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Regularly use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher on all exposed skin, even on cloudy days. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and after swimming or sweating.
- Protect children from the sun by using shade, dressing them in protective clothing and applying sunscreen.
- Use extra caution near water, snow and sand, which can reflect the sun's rays and increase the chances of sunburn.
- Avoid tanning beds. The UV (ultraviolet) light from tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling.
- Check your birthday suit on your birthday. Look at your skin carefully and if you see anything changing, growing or bleeding on your skin, see your dermatologist.
- Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet (which may include vitamin supplements.) Don't seek out the sun.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following steps for infants younger than 6 months:
- Use sunscreen on infants younger than 6 months old only if adequate clothing and shade are not available.
- Avoid exposing infants to the sun and dress them in lightweight clothing that covers most surface areas of skin
- Apply a minimal amount of sunscreen to the infant's face and back of the hands
Remember, sand and pavement reflect UV rays even under an umbrella. Snow is also a particularly good reflector of UV rays. So it is important to take preventive measures even during winter.
Treatment for Skin Cancer
Among the many kinds of treatments for skin cancer are the following:
- Surgery, including the following procedures:
- Cryosurgery using liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy the tissue
- Curettage and electrocautery to scrape away skin tissue, followed by cauterizing the wound with an electrosurgical unit
- Excision to cut away and remove the growth
- Mohs' micrographic surgery to remove lesions layer by layer, leaving healthy tissue undamaged
- Laser therapy using a narrow beam of light to destroy cancer cells
- Radiation therapy using X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors
- Photodynamic therapy using a certain type of light and a special chemical to kill cancer cells
- Chemotherapy, including the following types:
- Topical (skin-based) chemotherapy given as a cream or lotion on the skin to kill cancer cells
- Systemic chemotherapy administered orally or intravenously for more advanced cancers
- Immunotherapy using oral or injectable medications to boost the body's own immune system and help it attack the cancer
- Targeted therapy using medications that target specific parts of the cancer cells
For more information or to schedule an appointment, call (310) 825-6911.