Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States and is the result of the abnormal growth of skin cells that can form anywhere on the body, but most frequently appear 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. Although most cases of skin cancer can be successfully treated, it is important to follow safe skin care recommendations to prevent this disease.

Causes of Skin Cancer

Everyday, 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. This 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 can affect 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, can also increase the risk of skin cancer.

Types of Skin Cancer

There are three major types of skin cancer that affect different layers of the skin. The types of skin cancer 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. 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. Squamous cell skin cancer may spread to other parts of the body


Melanoma is the most aggressive type of cancer and is is more likely than other skin cancers to spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma occurs in the melanocyte (pigment) cells within 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 that may occur on the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands or legs. Although these are common areas for skin cancer growths to form, they may occur on any part of the body and may have the following characteristics:

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

Diagnosis of Skin Cancer

To diagnose skin cancer, a doctor will review all symptoms and check the skin for any unusual growths or abnormal skin patches. If skin cancer is suspected, a biopsy will performed on the growth or area of skin in question. Once the results of the biopsy are reviewed, the type of cancer will be determined and a treatment plan will be created. Individuals who experience any skin changes or changes to existing moles or birthmarks, should promptly see a doctor as early detection is valuable 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 an effective form of treatment. Removal procedures are usually simple and require only a local anesthetic in an outpatient setting. Some of the treatment options for skin cancer may include:

  • Freezing
  • Excision
  • Laser therapy
  • 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 if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Prevention of Skin Cancer

Although not all cases of skin cancer 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, especially between the hours of 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

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.

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