Skin cancer is the growth of abnormal skin cells. These abnormal cancer cells grow out of control and damage nearby healthy tissue. Some types of skin cancer can also spread to other parts of the body. There are different types of skin cancer based on the type of skin cells the cancer starts in. The 3 most common kinds of skin cancer are:
Most skin cancers when found early can be cured. Certain skin cancers like melanoma and merkel cell carcinoma can be fatal if found in late stages.
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Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. This uncontrolled growth is caused by damage to DNA in the cells. This damage may be caused by genetics, the environment (such as sun exposure), or a combination of both. When cells grow when they are not needed they begin to build up and form a tumor. Malignant tumors do not just grow in place but also invade nearby healthy tissues. Eventually, some of the cancer cells can break off and travel to other parts of the body.
UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds can cause damage to DNA of skin cells. The damage may occur after a lifetime of exposure or from brief intense exposures like with sunburns.
While skin cancer can develop in anyone, it is more likely to develop in people with:
Other factors that may increase the chances of skin cancer:
The first symptoms of skin cancers are a change in the skin. One type of change known as actinic keratosis is considered a precancerous change. This scaly, crusty change to skin can develop into skin cancer if left untreated.
Skin changes caused by cancer will depend on the type of skin cancer, for example:
Basal cell carcinoma may appear as any of the following:
Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as a:
Skin cancers can occur anywhere, but are more common on places that are exposed to the sun.
Finding skin cancer early offers the best chance for a cure.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
If the doctor suspects cancer a biopsy will be done. A sample of the skin will be removed and examined for the cancer cells.
The lymph nodes may be checked if the growth is large. Cancer in the lymph nodes means the cancer may have spread. More tests will be needed if cancer is found in the lymph nodes.
Treatment will depend on the type of cancer, the size of the growth, and your overall health. Options may include:
Many skin cancers can be fully cut out of the skin. Some skin cancer can be completely removed during a biopsy. Larger skin cancers may be removed by surgery after a biopsy confirms the presence of cancer. If skin cancer is completely removed, no further treatment is needed. Surgical techniques include:
Laser therapy uses a narrow beam of light to remove or destroy cancer cells. This method is sometimes used for cancers in the outer layer of skin.
Radiation therapy uses radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
Topical chemotherapy is the use of medications to kill cancer cells. The medication can be creams or lotions. This method is successful in treating precancerous conditions and cancers limited to the outer layer of the skin.
Immunotherapy uses medications that help your immune system fight the cancer.
To help reduce your chances of skin cancer:
If you see any changes in your skin, such as new growths or changes in moles or freckles, contact your doctor for a skin exam.
American Academy of Dermatology
Skin Cancer Foundation
Canadian Cancer Society
Canadian Dermatology Association
Alberta Provincial Cutaneous Tumour Team. Prevention of skin cancer. Edmonton (Alberta): CancerControl Alberta; 2013 Feb. 27 p. (Clinical practice guideline; no. CU-014). Available at: https://www.guideline.gov/summaries/summary/48130?#Section420.
Basal and squamous cell skin cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/basal-and-squamous-cell-skin-cancer.html. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Basal cell carcinoma of the skin. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113813/Basal-cell-carcinoma-of-the-skin. Updated February 27, 2018. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116909/Cutaneous-squamous-cell-carcinoma. Updated October 23, 2017. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Skin cancer treatment (PDQ)—patient version. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/patient/skin-treatment-pdq. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Monica Zangwill, MD, MPH
Last Updated: 3/6/2018
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