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Skin Cancer


What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the most prevalent of all types of cancers.  More than one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year.  Fair-skinned individuals who burn easily are at a particularly high risk for developing skin cancer.  Other important risk factors include use of tanning devices, family history, repeated medical and industrial x-ray exposure, immunosuppression, scaring from diseases or burns, and occupational exposure to compounds such as coal tar and arsenic.

What are actinic keratoses (AK)?

AKs (or solar keratoses) are considered the earliest stage in the development of certain skin cancers.  They are small, scaly spots most commonly found on the face, ears, neck, forearms, the scalp of bald men, and backs of the hand in fair-skinned individuals who have had significant sun exposure.  AKs can be treated by cryosurgery (freezing using liquid nitrogen), topical chemotherapy (applying a cream or lotion), chemical peeling, dermabrasion, laser surgery, electrodessication and curettage (ED&C-alternately scraping and burning the tumor), photodynamic therapy (a chemical applied to the skin is exposed to a light source), or other dermatologic surgical procedures.  Some AKs may progress to advanced stages that require more extensive treatment.  Proper use of sunscreens can help prevent AKs even after extensive sun damage has already occurred.


What is basal cell carcinoma (BCC)?

BCC is the most common type of skin cancer; it occurs most frequently on the head and neck, with the rest mainly on the trunk and lower limbs, and often appears as a fleshy bump, nodule, or red patch.  BCCs are frequently found in fair skinned people and rarely occur in dark-skinned individuals.  BCCs usually do not grow quickly, but this does not mean treatment should be delayed.  While BCCs rarely metastasize (spread) to other organs, if untreated, the cancer often will begin to repeatedly bleed and crust over, and can extend below the skin to the bone and nerves causing considerable damage. 

What is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)?

SCC is the second most common skin cancer; it is primarily found in fair-skinned people and rarely in dark-skinned individuals.  Typically located on the rim of the ear, face, near the mouth or on the trunk, this cancer may appear as a firm bump, or as a red, scaly patch.  SCC can develop into large masses and become invasive, leading to extensive local tissue destruction and possible risk of metastasis.  Therefore, it is important to get early treatment.  When detected and treated early, the cure rate for both BCC and SCC approaches 95 percent. 

What is malignant melanoma?

Malignant melanoma is the most deadly of all skin cancers.  Every year, more than 8,000 Americans will die from melanoma; it is projected that more than 100,000 Americans will develop melanoma annually.  Melanoma begins in melanocytes, the cells throughout the skin that produce the pigment called melanin which makes the skin tan; clusters of melanocytes are what make up moles.  Melanoma may appear suddenly or begin in or near a mole, or another dark spot in the skin.  It is important to know the location and appearance of the moles on the body to detect changes early.  Since melanoma cells can continue to produce melanin, this skin cancer often appears in mixed shades of tan, brown, and black; although, it can also be red or white.  Any changing mole must be examined by a dermatologist.  Early melanoma can be removed while still in the curable stage; melanoma readily metastasizes, making early detection and treatment essential to increase survival rates.  Excessive sun exposure, especially sunburn, is the most important preventable risk factor for melanoma.  Atypical moles, which may also run in families, and having a large number of moles, can also serve as markers for people at increased risk for developing melanoma.  Dark skin is not a guarantee against melanoma.  People with skin of color can develop melanoma, especially on the palms, soles, under the nails, in the mouth or on the genitals.