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Melanoma/Skin Cancer Health Center

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Skin Cancer

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When to Seek Medical Care for Skin Cancer

Many people, especially those who have fair coloring or have had extensive sun exposure, periodically check their entire body for suspicious moles and lesions.

Have your primary health care provider or a dermatologist check any moles or spots that concern you.

See your health care provider to check your skin if you notice any changes in the size, shape, color, or texture of pigmented areas (such as darker or a change in areas of skin or moles).

If you have skin cancer, your skin specialist (dermatologist) or cancer specialist (oncologist) will talk to you about symptoms of metastatic disease that might require care in a hospital.

Exams and Tests for Skin Cancer

If you think a mole or other skin lesion has turned into skin cancer, your primary care provider will probably refer you to a dermatologist. The dermatologist will examine any moles in question and, in many cases, the entire skin surface. Any lesions that are difficult to identify, or are thought to be skin cancer, may then be checked. Tests for skin cancer may include:

  • The doctor may use a handheld device called MelaFind to scan the lesion. A computer program then evaluates images of the lesion to indicate if it's cancerous.
  • A sample of skin (biopsy) will be taken so that the suspicious area of skin can be examined under a microscope.
  • A biopsy can almost always be done in the dermatologist's office.

If a biopsy shows that you have malignant melanoma, you may undergo further testing to determine the extent of spread of the disease, if any. This may involve blood tests, a chest X-ray, and other tests as needed. This is only needed if the melanoma is of a certain size.

Skin Cancer Treatment

Skin cancer treatment for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma is straightforward. Usually, surgical removal of the lesion is adequate. Malignant melanoma, however, may require several treatment methods -- depending on the size of the tumor -- including surgery, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy. Because of the complexity of treatment decisions, people with malignant melanoma may benefit from the combined expertise of the dermatologist, a cancer surgeon, and an oncologist.

Skin Cancer Care at Home

Home treatment is not appropriate for skin cancer. These conditions require the care of a dermatologist or specialist in skin cancers.

Be active in preventing and detecting skin cancer on yourself and others. Perform regular self-examinations of your skin and note any changes.

Medical Treatment for Skin Cancer

Surgical removal is the mainstay of skin cancer treatment for both basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. For more information, see Surgery.

People who cannot undergo surgery may be treated by external radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is the use of a small beam of radiation targeted at the skin lesion. The radiation kills the abnormal cells and destroys the lesion. Radiation therapy can cause irritation or burning of the surrounding normal skin. It can also cause fatigue. These side effects are temporary. In addition, a topical cream has recently been approved for the treatment of certain low-risk nonmelanoma skin cancers.

In advanced cases of melanoma, immune therapies, vaccines, or chemotherapy may be used. These treatments are typically offered as clinical trials. Clinical trials are studies of new therapies to see if they can be tolerated and work better than existing therapies.

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