Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The incidence is rising faster than any other type of cancer. While skin cancers can be found on any part of the body, about 80 percent appear on the face, head, or neck, where they can be disfiguring as well as dangerous.
Who gets skin cancer …and why
The primary cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation—most often from the sun, but also from artificial sources like tanning booths. In fact, researchers believe that our quest for the perfect tan, an increase in outdoor activities, and perhaps the thinning of the earth’s protective ozone layer are behind the alarming rise we’re now seeing in skin cancers.
Anyone can get skin cancer—no matter what your skin type, race or age, no matter where you live or what you do. But your risk is greater if…
- Your skin is fair and freckles easily.
- You have light-colored hair and eyes.
- You have a large number of moles, or moles of unusual size or shape.
- You have a family history of skin cancer or a personal history of blistering sunburn.
- You spend a lot of time working or playing outdoors.
- You live closer to the equator, at a higher altitude, or in any place that gets intense, year-round sunshine.
- You received therapeutic radiation treatments for adolescent acne.
Types of skin cancer
By far the most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. Fortunately, it’s also the least dangerous kind—it tends to grow slowly and rarely spreads beyond its original site. Though basal cell carcinoma is seldom life threatening, if left untreated it can grow deep beneath the skin and into the underlying tissue and bone.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the next most common kind of skin cancer, frequently appearing on the lips, face, or ears. It sometimes spreads to distant sites, including lymph nodes and internal organs.
A third form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, is the least common, but its incidence is increasing. Malignant melanoma is also the most dangerous type of skin cancer. If discovered early enough, it can be completely cured. If it’s not treated early, however, malignant melanoma may spread throughout the body.
Other skin growths you should know about
Two other common types of skin growths are moles and keratoses.
Moles are clusters of heavily pigmented skin cells, either flat or raised above the skin surface. While most pose no danger, some may develop into malignant melanoma. Moles are frequently removed for cosmetic reasons, or because they’re constantly irritated by clothing or jewelry.
Solar or actinic keratoses are rough, red or brown, scaly patches on the skin. They are usually found on areas exposed to the sun, and sometimes develop into squamous cell cancer.
Recognizing skin cancer
Basal and squamous cell carcinomas can vary widely in appearance. The cancer may begin as small, white or pink “bump;” it can be smooth and shiny, waxy, or pitted on the surface. The skin lesion might appear as a red spot that’s rough, dry, or scaly; a firm, red lump that may form a crust; a sore that bleeds or doesn’t heal after two to four weeks; or a white patch that looks like scar tissue.
Malignant melanoma is usually signaled by a change in the size, shape, or color of an existing mole, or as a new growth on normal skin. Watch for the “ABCD” warning signs of melanoma:
- Asymmetry—a growth with unmatched halves
- Border irregularity—ragged or blurred edges
- Color—a mottled appearance, with shades of tan, brown, and black, sometimes mixed with red, white, or blue
- Diameter—a growth more than 6 millimeters across (about the size of a pencil eraser), or any unusual increase in size.
If all these variables sound confusing, the most important thing to remember is this: Get to know your skin and examine it regularly, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. (Don’t forget your back.) If you notice any unusual changes on any part of your body, have a Dermatologist examine your skin.
Diagnosis and treatment
Skin cancer is diagnosed by removing the growth and examining its cells under a microscope. It can be treated by a number of methods, depending on the type of cancer, its stage of growth, and its location on your body. Many skin cancers can be removed in our office.
Most skin cancers are removed surgically by a Dermatologist. If the cancer is small, the procedure can be done quickly and easily using local anesthesia. The procedure may be a simple excision or curettage and desiccation (ED&C) may be performed. In the ED&C procedure the cancer is scraped out with an electric current to control bleeding and remove any remaining cancer cells.
For cosmetically sensitive locations Dr. Poulos may refer you to a Mohs surgeon. Mohs is a special procedure in which the cancer is shaved off one layer at a time and the tissue is examined under the microscope while the patient remains in the office. Mohs surgery is performed only by specially trained Dermatologists and often requires a reconstructive procedure after the cancer is completely removed.