Skin Cancer

Skin cancer refers to an abnormal growth of skin cells that most often results from overexposure to the sun. There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

Basal cell carcinoma

The most common form of skin cancer in the United States, basal cell carcinoma is a slow-growing and painless growth that forms in the top layer of the skin. Basal cell carcinoma is most likely to appear on areas on the skin that are regularly exposed to sunlight, including the scalp. Although it rarely spreads, if left untreated, it may grow into surrounding areas or nearby tissues and bones.

Causes

Basal cell carcinoma is often caused by harmful UV radiation from the sun. Other factors that may increase your risk are repeated exposure to x-rays or chemical toxins. Individuals with light-colored skin, blue or green eyes, and blond or red hair are at a higher risk of developing basal cell carcinoma. It affects men more often than women.

Symptoms

Basal cell carcinoma may appear only slightly different than normal skin. Some warning signs include the presence of bumps that are pearly or waxy. They may be white, light pink, flesh colored, or brown, and may be surrounded by visible blood vessels.

You should have your skin examined by a dermatologist if you notice any sores that bleed easily or do not heal well, sores with a sunken area in the middle, or the appearance of a scar in a place you have not been injured.

Treatment

Treatment for basal cell carcinoma varies depending on the size, depth, and location of the growth. One common procedure is excising, or cutting out, the cancerous cells. Surgical treatment of basal cell carcinoma may involve specialized surgical techniques, such as Mohs surgery.

Other methods of treatment include scraping away the cancerous cells, killing them with electricity, or freezing them.

Basal cell carcinoma is easily treated but may recur. Have your skin regularly examined by a dermatologist to check for any new growths.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma spreads faster than basal cell carcinoma, but can still be successfully treated if detected early.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma spreads faster than basal cell carcinoma, but can still be successfully treated if detected early.

Causes

The primary cause of squamous cell carcinoma is exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays.

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

• Having fair skin, blue or green eyes, or blond or red hair
• Working outdoors or spending a lot of time in the sun
• Experiencing severe sunburns early in life
• Being exposed to arsenic or other toxic chemicals
• Smoking

Symptoms

The main symptom of squamous cell carcinoma is a growth or bump with a rough, scaly surface. A sore that does not heal can also indicate the presence of cancerous cells. Squamous cell carcinoma usually occurs on the face, neck, hands, or arms, but may be located in other areas.

Treatment

Treatment for squamous cell carcinoma depends on the size and location of the tumor, as well as how far it has spread. For cancers that are not very large or deep, the cancerous cells can be surgically removed, or destroyed with electricity.

Mohs surgery can be used to progressively remove layers of the skin and examine them for cancerous cells, until only healthy skin remains. Mohs surgery is particularly effective in treating cancer on parts of the body where preservation of the surrounding healthy tissue is particularly important, such as the hands or face.

Radiation may be used if the cancer has spread to other tissues or organs.

Melanoma

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops from the melanocytes, cells in the skin that produce color. Although it is the least common form of skin cancer, it is also the most serious. Melanoma is the leading cause of death from related to disease.

If caught early, melanoma is very treatable. Any mole that has changed in appearance or any new skin lesion should be examined by your doctor.

Causes

Melanoma is related to exposure to the sun or ultraviolet radiation. People with fair skin, blue or green eyes, and red or blond hair are most at risk.

Other risk factors include:

• Prolonged exposure to strong sunlight, such as people who work outdoors
• Living in sunny climates or at high altitudes
• One or more severe sunburns at a young age
• Use of tanning beds

Other factors, such as a family history of melanoma, contact with toxic chemicals, or an impaired immune system, can increase your risk.

Symptoms

Like other forms of skin cancer, melanoma appears as a mole, sore, or growth on the skin. Melanoma can appear as a new skin growth, or it can develop from an existing mole that has changed in appearance. Any change in the appearance of a mole over time should be considered a warning sign, as well as any moles or skin growths that bleed.

When examining moles, use the ABCDE method to identify features that could indicate melanoma:

• Asymmetry: the mole is oddly shaped, or one half is different from the other.
• Borders: the growth has irregular or uneven borders.
• Color: the color of the mole changes from one area to another. A mixture of colors may appear within one growth.
• Diameter: malignant moles are usually larger than 6mm, or the size of a pencil eraser.
• Evolving: the mole changes over time. It may grow larger, change color or shape, or develop other symptoms, such as itching or bleeding.

Because early detection is critical in the treatment of melanoma, regular self exams and annual checkups are recommended to diagnose melanoma before it can spread.

Treatment

If melanoma is diagnosed early, the cancerous cells can be surgically removed. Some normal tissue surrounding the melanoma may need to be removed as well. The amount of tissue removed depends on how deep the cancerous cells have grown.

For melanoma that has spread beyond the skin, treatment is more difficult. If nearby lymph nodes have been infected, they may also need to be removed. If the melanoma has spread to other organs, chemotherapy or radiation treatments may be used to shrink the tumor and improve symptoms.