Cancer is a frightening and deadly condition that is the result of abnormal growth and changes in normal cells. Skin cancer is a common problem that results in roughly one million new diagnoses annually in the U.S.
Of all cancers, it is the most common; however, it only causes less than one percent of all cancer deaths. One of the reasons for this is that it is often curable if found early enough. People who are concerned about the risk of skin cancer will benefit from educating themselves about the different types and how to prevent it from occurring.
One major contributing factor to skin cancer is the sun. The more unprotected sun exposure, the higher the risk of skin cancer. This is why a safe hypoallergenic sunscreen for sensitive skin is so important to prevention.
Dermatologists recommend sunscreen with zinc oxide as the safest type to use. With skin cancer, it's best to avoid any ingredients that may exacerbate your health. There are certain products that you may want to not purchase, after reading the labels.
Different Types of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is easy to detect because it often shows up on exposed skin that is not protected from the sun's rays. All races and complexions can be affected, but those with lighter skin who sunburn easily are at higher risk.
- Actinic keratoses (AK) - The type is the precursor to squamous cell carcinoma. It affects fair skin and usually in areas that are the most exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands and forearms. It is 'precancerous' and appears as dry patches or spots.
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) - BCC is the most common type of skin cancer. The bumps that appear can be seen anywhere on the body besides the sun exposed areas, such as the chest, abdomen, and legs.
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) - SCC sores appear as a red firm bump, scaly patch, or a sore that heals and re-opens. This type of cancer can penetrate the deeper layers of the skin and cause damage. If not diagnosed early, it can spread to other areas of the body.
- Melanoma - A mole or a dark spot is characteristic of melanoma. It can become malignant, which is why early diagnosis and treatment is crucial.
What is Melanoma?
Of the main types of skin cancer, the least common is melanoma. Also known as malignant melanoma and cutaneous melanoma, this type of skin cancer is the most dangerous. Its name, melanoma, comes from the fact that it develops from melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that are found deep within the upper layer of the skin that is known as the epidermis. These cells are responsible for producing melanin, which is not only responsible for giving skin its color but also aids in the protection of the skin from the harmful effects caused by the sun and ultraviolet rays.
When changes occur in these cells and uncontrolled reproduction begins, they can produce tumors that are either benign or malignant. The malignant, or cancerous, tumors are melanomas, and they can appear on any part of the skin. Melanomas are more apt to start in certain locations than others depending on gender: According to the American Cancer Society, men are more likely to start developing melanomas on the back and chest, while the legs are the site most common for women. Other common spots for melanoma growth locations include one's neck and face. This type of skin cancer can go so deep as to invade an individual's blood vessels and lymph nodes. American Academy of Dermatology lists the ABCDEs of self-examination to look at moles on your skin for any signs of melanoma.
Melanoma is divided into stages of 0 to IV. At stage 0, it is confined to the top layer of the skin, called epidermis. As it progresses, by stage IV, it has spread to internal organs, lymph nodes, or has spread to other areas of thee skin.
In the treatment of melanoma, a person may have a treatment team that consists of a surgical oncologist, a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, and a dermatologist. The treatment team depends on the specific situation. Treatment options often are dependent on the stage of the cancer, which ranges from Stage 0 to Stage IV. The goal of treatment is to remove all cancer cells. An office visit may be all that's needed, if melanoma has not spread. As melanoma grows deeper and spreads, treatment becomes more invasive and complex, such as using surgery to remove lymph nodes, drugs, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
When the tumor is caught in its early stage, surgery may prove effective as the only type of treatment needed; however, every situation differs. A person may also experience recurrent melanoma. In efforts to prevent this from occurring, a surgery called sentinel lymph node mapping may be done to determine if there is a risk that the melanoma has spread to the patient's lymph nodes. New methods of treating this condition are continuously being researched, with vaccines and targeted and gene therapies currently being investigated.
More About Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer
Most often, skin cancer is referred by melanoma or non-melanoma. Non-melanoma skin cancer is the second of the two types of skin cancer. It is called non-melanoma because it does not involve melanocytes. This type of cancer is far more common than melanoma, and in terms of cancer in general, it is the most common type. It is typically not as dangerous as melanoma and can often be successfully treated with early diagnosis and treatment. This type of skin cancer is typically associated with changes in the skin's appearance, like the changes in a wart or mole. These changes may be in size, shape or coloring of the growth. Exposure to too much sun is often the cause of this type of cancer, and as a result, areas that are commonly susceptible are areas that are frequently exposed to the sun. The nose is the most common area, but changes also commonly occur on the back, neck, head, shoulders, and chest. Non-melanomas also fall into one of two categories: basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas.
About Squamous Cell Carcinomas
Squamous cell carcinoma is a non-melanoma skin cancer that resembles squamous cells. These are cells that are located near the uppermost part of the epidermis. It is the second-most-common type of non-melanoma cancer and is predominately caused by the sun or UV radiation exposure, such as tanning salons. This type of cancer is considered low-risk and generally is treatable if caught early on; however, it can spread into other parts of the body if left untreated. Squamous cell carcinomas most commonly appear on the lower lip, the outer rim of the ear, the neck, arms, legs, hands, or scalp. They may have the appearance of a wart, or they may be elevated, scaly, red and irregular in shape around the edges. Squamous cell carcinomas may also bleed if bumped, followed by crusting.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma is a very slow-growing type of non-melanoma skin cancer that rarely metastasizes, or spreads, to other areas of the body beyond the skin. It makes up as much as 80 percent of skin cancer cases, making it the most common type of skin cancer. Additionally, it is the skin cancer that is the least dangerous. It resembles the basal cells that are found in the lower region of the epidermis. People most at risk of basal cell carcinoma are adults over the age of 55, according to Harvard Medical School. There are a few different forms of this type of basal cell carcinoma: superficial, morpheaform, and nodular. They may be pearly, waxy, white, pink, or flesh-colored. The site of the cancer may be elevated or flat, and some may frequently bleed or ooze, followed by crusting. In order to determine whether or not an area is cancerous, a biopsy must be performed. Treatment is based on the location of the cancer as well as its depth and size. Treatment options include medication, excision, curettage and electrodesiccation, cryosurgery, treatment that uses light called photodynamic therapy, or Mohs surgery.
Easy Steps Skin Cancer Self-Exam
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, it's important to practice monthly head-toe skin cancer self examination every month. If you spot anything that appears abnormal or suspicious, contact your doctor. The following are easy step by step instructions, and if possible, ask a friend to help:
- In front of a full mirror or a mounted or hand-held face mirror, (preferably magnifying) examine your face, especially your nose, lips, mouth, and ears.
- Inspect your scalp carefully and slowly by dividing your hair into sections.
- Check your hands, including palms, backs, between fingers, and under fingernails.
- Examine your wrists and both front and back of your forearms.
- Standing in front of a full-length mirror, check your elbows, sides and upper arms. Remember under your arms.
- Next check your neck and chest, including underside of breasts
- Using a full length mirror and a hand held one, examine your back, including back of your neck and arms.
- In front of the full length mirror, examine your legs, lower back and buttocks.
- Sit down and carefully scan your legs and feet, including in-between your toes, ankles, heels and even toenails.
For more information, visit these sites:
- Basal Cell Carcinoma: Skin Cancer and the History of Tanning
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)
- About Skin Cancer
- Condition and Treatments: Skin Cancer
- University of Miami - Miller School of Medicine - Skin Cancer
- Skin Cancer Health Topics
- Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer
- Skin Cancer Treatment Options (Melanoma)
- Skin Cancer Statistics
- Skin Cancer (Melanoma)
- Types of Melanoma
- American Academy of Dermatology - Melanoma
- Diseases and Conditions: Squamous Cell Carcinomas
- Patient Education Resources on Dermatology