Skin cancer is the growth of abnormal skin cells. These 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, the three most common kinds are:
Cancer occurs when cells in the body grow without control or order. This uncontrolled growth is caused by damage to DNA in the cells. Your genes and the environment (such as sun exposure) probably both play a role. This extra growth builds up and forms a tumor. Cancer tumors will also invade nearby healthy tissues. Eventually, some of the cancer cells can break off and travel to other parts of the body.
UV radiation damages the DNA of skin cells. Both the sun and tanning beds make these UV rays. The damage may build up over a lifetime. It can also happen after a brief intense exposures, like sunburns.
The first symptoms of skin cancers are a change in the skin. One type of change known as actinic keratosis. It 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:
Slowly expanding, painless growth
Bleeding scab or sore that heals and recurs
Flat, firm, pale area
Small, raised, pink, red, or pearly areas that may bleed easily
Large oozing, crusted area
Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as a:
Growing lump with rough, scaly, or crusted surfaces
Slow-growing flat, reddish patch in the skin
Recurrent, nonhealing ulceration or bleeding
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.
Report any skin changes or symptoms when they appear, so they can be examined by a doctor.
If you have fair skin, have your skin regularly checked by a doctor.
Ask the doctor about regular skin screenings you can do at home.
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 finds cancer. If skin cancer is completely removed, no further treatment is needed. Surgical techniques include:
Simple excision—A scalpel is used to cut out the lesion.
Curettage and electrodesiccation—The cancer is scooped out with a sharp, spoon shaped tool. The tool uses a mild electric current to stop bleeding. The current also kills any cancer cells that may have been left behind.
This is used for small skin cancers that are not deep.
Mohs micrographic surgery—The lesion is shaved off in thin layers. The doctor will repeat the process until the removed layers show no signs of cancer. The goal is to remove as little healthy tissue as possible while making sure all the cancer is gone. This method is used to remove:
Tumors in hard-to-treat places
Tumors of unclear shape and depth
Cancers that have recurred
Cryosurgery—Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze and kill the cancer cells. After the area warms up, the dead tissue falls off. More than one freezing may be needed. This may be used to treat small cancers or those on top layers of skin. It may also be used on skin conditions that may turn into cancer but are not yet.
Laser therapy uses a narrow beam of light to remove or destroy cancer cells. This is sometimes used for cancers in the outer layer of skin.
Radiation can kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It is aimed at the cancer to avoid damaging as much healthy tissue as possible.
Topical chemotherapy is medicine to kill the cancer cells. It is delivered in creams or lotions that are applied to the skin. This works best to treat skin conditions before they become cancer or cancers on the outer layer of the skin.
This type of therapy uses medicine to help your immune system. It can help your body identify and attack cancer cells.
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.
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.
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