Everything You Need To Know About Skin Cancer

Table of Contents

Overview
Types of Skin Cancer
Signs and Symptoms
Risk Factors
When To See A Doctor
Prevention
Diagnosis
Stages
Prognosis
Complications
Treatments
Living With Skin Cancer
Outlook

Overview

Skin cancer is one of the most complex forms of cancer — it’s also the most common. One in five Americans will develop this type of cancer by age 70. To put this figure in perspective, more people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer than every other type of cancer combined. Since skin cancer is so common, it’s important to know the causes and risk factors to prevent developing this condition.

Types of Skin Cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer that are most commonly diagnosed: basal cell skin cancer, squamous cell skin cancer and malignant melanoma. Each type has its own levels of severity, symptoms and treatments.

  • Basal Cell Skin Cancer
    Basal cells sit just below the skin’s surface. This form of skin cancer is the most common and least life threatening, but it can cause severe disfigurement.
  • Squamous Cell Skin Cancer
    This form of cancer affects the squamous cells, which sit on the skin’s surface. It’s also found in the lining of the digestive and respiratory systems and the inner lining of hollow organs. This form of cancer isn’t usually dangerous, but can become deadly if not treated early enough.
  • Malignant Melanoma
    This is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. Fortunately, it is only one percent of all skin cancer cases. It occurs when the melanocytes are damaged, which give the cells its pigment and darken when exposed to the sun. Early detection is important because it can be deadly.

Basal cell and squamous cell cancer are the most common forms of this skin disease. They are less likely to spread to other parts of the body than  melanoma. Some less common types of skin cancer include merkel cell carcinoma, kaposi’s sarcoma and sebaceous gland carcinoma.

Signs And Symptoms

Each of the three main forms of skin cancer have its own unique symptoms and warning signs related to changes in the skin’s appearance.

Basal cell carcinoma
These skin lesions can appear either as waxy bumps, flat and flesh-colored skin lesions, or bleeding scabs that heal and eventually return. They’re commonly found on sun-exposed areas of the body such as the neck and face.

Squamous cell carcinoma
This also appears in sun-exposed parts of the body. It can look like a firm, red nodule or a flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface.

Malignant melanoma
Unlike the other two forms, melanoma can appear anywhere on the body. There are a number of signs that can indicate melanoma has formed: large brownish spots with dark speckles, changes in the appearance of feel of a mole, small lesions with an irregular colored border. It commonly appears in moles. 

Risk Factors

The biggest risk factor for non-melanoma forms of skin cancer is high exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR), which is emitted from the sun and indoor tanning. The chances of developing skin cancer increases as you grow older. While it mostly affects men and women equally, cases of squamous cell carcinoma are diagnosed more in men.

Here are some other risk factors involved with skin cancer:

  • Having light-colored skin, eyes and hair
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Personal or family history of skin cancer
  • A history of sunburns
  • Weakened immune system
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Working with certain products such as coal and shale, industrial tar and pitch, creosote, chimney soot and paraffin

When To See A Doctor

Having moles, spots and growths on your body is normal. But some may indicate that cancer is forming. To stay aware of any changes on your skin, you should check your body regularly for abnormal skin ailments, especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors.

Examine your body in-depth from head to toe using a bright light and mirrors. Remember the acronym ABCDE when looking for warning signs:

Asymmetry — do the halves on a mole match? 

Borders — are the edges uneven, scalloped or notched?

Colors — are there many shades of brown, red, white, blue or black?

Diameter — is it bigger than a pencil eraser in diameter?

Evolution — has there been any changes in the shape, color, height? Is it bleeding or itching?

If you suspect any problems when answering these questions, then you should see your doctor. Not all changes in skin will be caused by skin cancer, but always seek diagnosis to rule out the possibility.

Prevention

Most cases of skin cancer are preventable. Taking the time to care for your skin will protect you from developing this condition. Here are a few preventative measures  you can keep in mind.

Cover Up
If you’re spending long periods of time out in the sun, give your skin added layers of protection. Wear a hat, sunglasses and a cover up over your bathing suit. Wear thin, breathable materials that won’t cause you to overheat. You should also  limit your time in the sun.

Use the UV Index Forecast
The UV Index Forecast monitors how strong and dangerous the sun is each day. When the index is at three, wear sunscreen and limit your time in the sun. An easy way to monitor the forecast is by looking at your shadow: if your shadow is shorter than you, the sun is very strong and you should avoid it as much as you can.

Use Sunscreen
This is one of the simplest and most crucial things to do to prevent skin cancer. Apply sunscreen every day with a minimum protection of SPF 30. Even if it isn’t the summer, apply it to your face daily. UV rays can still damage your skin when it’s cold and cloudy.

Avoid Tanning Equipment
UVR exposure from tanning beds pose the same risk to your skin as the sun does. Instead, use less invasive self tanning products on your skin such as lotions, gels or mouses.

Diagnosis

Doctors will perform a biopsy of the skin to determine if there is cancer. This involves removing tissues or cells from the skin, which are analyzed to see if cancer cells are present. 

The type of biopsy done depends on the skin ailment in question. A shave biopsy will remove a raised growth on the skin. A punch biopsy will use a tool to grab an area under the skin. There is also an excisional biopsy that’s done when the doctor believes an entire area of the skin needs to be examined to make a complete diagnosis.

Stages

When doctors are diagnosing cancer, they’re checking to see how much and how long cancer has been on the body. There are different stages between melanoma and non-melanoma forms of cancer. 

The stages for basal and squamous cell skin cancer focus on the areas affected on the head and neck area. Doctors use three key pieces of information to determine a stage: the size of the tumor (T), if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes (N) and if the cancer has spread or metastasized (M) to distant parts of the body.

From there, the doctor will rate a number associated with the T, N and M letters. The higher the number, the more severe the cancer is. This number will label a patient in a stage from zero to four (least to most severe).

Melanoma is similarly measured but has a more comprehensive criteria that pertain to each stage. There are four main stages of melanoma cancer from stages 0 to 4. A patient’s stage is determined based on the thickness of the tumor, if there is ulceration, and if the cancer has begun spreading to other parts of the body. 

A patient will be labeled with a stage to help doctors determine the best course of action to treat the condition. If the cancer returns after it’s been treated, then it is labeled as recurrent melanoma. 

Prognosis

If you’re diagnosed with skin cancer, your doctor can  give you a prognosis regarding your condition. This gives you an idea of how treatment will work in comparison to previous outcomes of this cancer.

It’s uncommon for people to die from basal and squamous cell skin cancer. In the U.S., only 2000 people die each year, and it’s mostly elderly patients who waited too long for treatment.

It’s important to treat squamous cancer early because it’s possible for the condition to become more advanced. If it spreads to the lymph nodes or other distant organs, the prognosis becomes more severe.

The prognosis for melanoma skin cancer is more severe. Depending on how localized or widespread your melanoma is, your survival rate will vary. Death rates are higher for patients who experience widespread melanoma, since more of the body is impacted by cancer.

Every person’s condition is different. While comparing your individual diagnosis with previous patient experiences is not meant to give a definitive answer of your survival, it does give you a general idea on the severity of your condition and possible outcomes.

Complications

There are three potential complications that could come from a skin cancer diagnosis: 

  1. The cancer could recur after it has been cured. 
  2. The cancer could spread to surrounding tissues such as the lymph nodes. 
  3. The cancer could spread beyond the skin and start to affect your muscles, nerves or other organs in your body.

Treatments

There are a number of ways doctors can treat skin cancer. Your specific  treatment plan will depend on a number of factors such as the type of cancer, risk level, size, and location. 

Doctors typically consider three main forms of treatment:

  • Surgery — an operation is the primary treatment for people with melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer.
  • Radiation — this treatment uses a beam of radiation, commonly on patients where surgery is too high of a risk, and targets an area of the skin and its surrounding tissue.
  • Drug therapy — melanoma might be treated with drugs that work to destroy cancer cells and prevent more from forming.

A course of treatment will vary from person to person and it’s possible for some patients to use a combination of these treatments.

Living With Skin Cancer

Being diagnosed with skin cancer is a life-changing experience. You will start to rethink the simple things you do each day that take a toll on your skin.

The most important thing you can do after being diagnosed with skin cancer is continue to monitor your health. It’s possible the cancer will spread further throughout the body. Any changes in your health, physical or mental, should be addressed with your doctor in order to keep track of your condition. 

You should also be more mindful of how you treat your skin. Protecting your body with sunscreen and reapplying throughout the day should become a habit you do all year round. Be mindful of how much time you’re spending in the sun and how exposed your body is, especially in the summer when the UV rays are strong. 

A cancer diagnosis can take a serious toll on your mental wellbeing. Talk to someone about how you’re dealing with the diagnosis and consider meeting with other people who have gone through the same experience. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and remember to make your health a priority.

Outlook

Overall, skin cancer is a very common condition. Basal and squamous cell skin cancer are the conditions most commonly diagnosed and are highly treatable. Melanoma skin cancer is a more dangerous form that can be diagnosed across a number of stages.

Skin cancer is highly preventable. Using sunscreen, not using tanning beds that emit ultraviolet radiation and limiting your time in the sun are easy ways to prevent developing skin cancer. You should regularly examine your body and see your doctor if any suspicious changes occur on your skin.

doctor examining mole on woman's back Africa Studio / Shutterstock