There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun (all year long, and in any weather) or tanning beds is linked to all of them.
Almost all skin cancers -- 95% -- are basal cell and squamous cell cancers. Also called non-melanoma skin cancers, they are highly curable when treated early.
Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. It starts in skin pigment cells called melanocytes.
Early treatment greatly improves your chances of beating it.
Left untreated, it can spread to other parts of your body and become hard to control.
Who Is at Risk?
Anyone can get skin cancer. The people mostly likely to get it are those with:
Darker-skinned people can also get any type of skin cancer, although it's less likely for them than for pale-skinned people.
You're also at risk if:
- You've had skin cancer before.
- It runs in your family.
- You work outside or live in a sunny climate.
Your risk for melanoma rises if:
- You've had severe sunburns and have more than 30 irregularly-shaped moles.
- You use tanning beds.
What Are the Symptoms of Skin Cancer?
The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, typically a new mole or spot, or a change in an existing mole.
Basal cell carcinoma may show up as a small, smooth, pearly or waxy bump on the face, ears, or neck, or as a flat pink, red, or brown lesion on the trunk or arms and legs.
Squamous cell carcinoma can appear as a firm, red bump, or as a rough, scaly flat spot that may bleed and become crusty.
Melanoma usually appears as a pigmented patch or bump but can also be red or white. It may resemble a normal mole, but usually has a more irregular appearance.
"ABCDE" is a good way to remember what to look for:
- Asymmetry. The shape of one half doesn't match the other.
- Border. The edges are ragged or blurred.
- Color. It has uneven shades of brown, black, tan, red, white, or blue.
- Diameter. There's been a significant change in size.
- Evolving. This means any new spot or mole changing in color, shape, or size, and any spot that itches, bleeds or becomes painful..
First, you'll get some local anesthesia, which means it will numb just that area of your skin. Your doctor will then take a small sample of skin.
A specialist will check the sample under a microscope to see if it's cancer.
Your skin cancer type, its size, and its location are some of the things that will affect how it's treated.
If you have non-melanoma skin cancer (basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas), your treatment may include:
Removing the skin cancer. Your dermatologist can do this in her office. You'll be awake for the short procedure, with local anesthesia to numb the affected part of your skin. The doctor will remove the skin cancer and a tiny rim of normal-looking skin around it with a scalpel. She'll use stitches or sutures to close up the skin.
Mohs surgery (for high-risk cases). The doctor will remove the skin cancer layer by layer, checking each one under a microscope until it's all gone.
Electrodesiccation and curettage. These in-office procedures take 5 minutes or less. You'll get anesthesia in the affected area. Your doctor will use a metal scoop device followed by an electric needle to scrape away the skin cancer cells.
Cryosurgery or freezing. You'll get this done in your doctor's office. She will use a spray, cotton swab, or metal device called a cryoprobe to apply extremely cold liquid nitrogen to the cancer. This freezes the cancer cells and the immediate surrounding cells. The frozen skin thaws and forms a scab, which eventually falls off, leaving a white scar.
Chemotherapy skin creams. Your doctor will prescribe a cream or gel for you to use at home on an area of your skin where you have precancerous growths or directly on a skin cancer. You'll use it nightly, twice daily, or three times a week for as long as 3 months. These treatments destroy the cancer cells.
If you have melanoma, your treatment may include:
- Removing the skin cancer
- Checking nearby lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread
- Medications, if the cancer is widespread in your body; these include chemotherapy, which kills the cancer cells, and biologic drugs, which target the cancer cells or work with your immune system to fight the cancer.
- Radiation therapy if you have advanced melanoma
Follow these tips to help prevent skin cancer:
- Wear sunscreen every day. It should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and should be "broad-spectrum," meaning it guards against UVA and UVB rays. Put it on 15 minutes before you go outside. Reapply every 80 minutes when outside, and more often when swimming or sweating. Check the label for directions.
- Pick sunglasses with total UV protection and a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face and neck.
- If you have kids, be a good role model for sun protection and help your child learn how to take good care of their skin.
- Check your skin at least once a month so you know what's normal for you. This will help you notice any changes or new growths.
- Try to stay out of the sun as much as possible from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, the peak hours for UVB radiation. The UVA rays, which cause premature skin aging and initiate skin cancers, are out all day long.