There are many different kinds of skin cancers, with each type being distinguished by the types of skin cells that are primarily affected. The three most common forms of skin cancer are:
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) - The most common skin cancer and the most frequent cancer in humans, BCC affects more than 1 million people each year in the United States. BCC develops in the basal cells that make up the deepest layer of the epidermis, the top layer of the skin. BCC may appear as a shiny, translucent or pearly bump; a sore that does not heal; a pink, slightly elevated growth; a reddish irritated patch of skin; or a waxy scar-like lesion. It is most commonly found on skin that has been chronically exposed to the sun, such as the face, ears, scalp, chest and back. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent damage to surrounding tissue.
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) - This cancer begins in the squamous cells, which also are found in the upper layer of the skin. More than 200,000 cases are reported each year in the United States. SCC may appear as a crusted or scaly area of skin with a red, inflamed base that resembles a growing bump, a non-healing ulcer or a crusted patch of skin. While it usually appears on areas of the body that frequently are exposed to the sun, SCC can develop anywhere, including areas that never typically receive sunlight. SCC requires early treatment to prevent it from causing damage to surrounding body features and from spreading to other areas of the body.
- Melanoma - This cancer begins in the melanocytes, the cells that provide the skin’s color. Melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer because it can spread rapidly inside the body. Approximately one American dies from melanoma every hour. With early detection and proper treatment, most melanomas are easily cured with minor surgical procedures. Once melanoma leaves the skin and spreads inside the body, the cure rates drop dramatically.
Other kinds of cancer that may affect the skin include cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system, and Kaposi's sarcoma. Cancers that start in other parts of the body may also spread (metastasize) to the skin.
One in five Americans will develop some type of skin cancer over the course of their lifetimes but, with early detection and treatment, however, most skin cancers are completely treatable.
What can you do?
Early detection and treatment of any form of skin cancer is essential both to prevent the disease from spreading to other areas of the body and to achieving better outcomes.Research has shown that most skin cancers are detected by patients rather than doctors. Learning how to examine your own skin and allowing your physician to periodically help can promote skin health and also can dramatically reduce your risks of having significant problems with skin cancer.
- Reduce sun exposure. Minimize your time in the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun's rays are the strongest. Sun-protective clothing such as sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves and pants also can help protect your skin.
- Use sunscreen. Choose a sunscreen everyday with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and with both UVA and UVB protection.
- Stay out of tanning beds. Avoid exposure to tanning beds and artificial tanning devices which significantly increase the risk of future skin cancer development.
- Recognize the ABCDEs of moles and melanoma. During your self-examinations, look for the following warning signs in skin lesions: Asymmetry (not uniform in appearance), Border irregularity (jagged or irregular borders), Color variability, Diameter larger than a pencil eraser and Evolving or changing moles. Any changing skin lesion should be examined by a dermatologist.
- Visit a dermatologist who is uniquely trained and experienced in the management of diseases of the skin, hair and nails and is your most reliable source for the continued protection and health of your skin. An annual screening by a medical professional is often helpful to identify skin cancer in its early stages because some forms of skin cancer can be mistaken for harmless freckles or moles and may go unrecognized by those without proper medical training.
Treatment depends on the type of cancer, its stage of growth, as well as other factors. The most common types of treatment include tissue-sparing Mohs micrographic surgery, traditional surgical excision, and electrodesiccation paired with curettage, which uses a special scraping instrument to remove the lesion followed by electrocautery to destroy any remaining cells. If indicated by medical history and physical findings, cryosurgery or topical chemotherapeutics may also be employed.