Key Points about Skin Cancer
- Though skin cancer can affect anyone, it is more common in those with fair skin, light-colored eyes and light-colored hair, as well as those who get prolonged sun exposure.
- Diagnosis of skin cancer includes a skin examination and biopsy of the affected area.
- Treatment for skin cancer may consist of a combination of surgery to remove the cancerous cells, plus therapies to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.
Skin cancer typically occurs on skin exposed to the sun over time. However, skin cancer can develop in areas of the skin not exposed to sunlight. Skin cancer is a common type of cancer and can develop in anyone. The three major types of skin cancer are:
- Basal cell carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Skin cancer causes
Cancer occurs when cells start to grow abnormally. These abnormal cells grow more quickly than healthy cells, leading to the formation of a mass.
Skin cancer risk factors
Certain factors increase the risk of developing skin cancer. These include:
- A family history of skin cancer
- A history of severe sunburns, especially during childhood
- A personal history of skin cancer
- A weakened immune system
- Excessive sun exposure, including natural sunlight and tanning beds
- Exposure to certain chemicals, such as arsenic
- Having blonde or red hair
- Having fair skin
- Having light-colored eyes
- Having moles
- Having precancerous skin lesions
- Having undergone radiation treatment for eczema or acne
- Living at a higher elevation
- Living in a sunny climate
Skin cancer symptoms
The symptoms of skin cancer vary based on the type of skin cancer.
The signs and symptoms of basal cell carcinoma may include:
- A bleeding or scabby sore that heals but then returns
- A flat, skin-colored or brown scar-like lesion
- A pearly, waxy bump
The signs and symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma may include:
- A firm, red nodule
- A flat lesion with a scaly, crusty surface
The signs and symptoms of melanoma can include:
- A bloody mole
- A large brown spot with darker flecks
- A mole that changes color, size or feel
- A painful lesion that is itchy or burns
- A small lesion with irregular borders and areas that are red, pink, white, blue or blue-black
- Dark lesions on the mucous membranes that line your mouth, nose, vagina or anus
- Dark lesions on the palms of your hands, soles of your feet, fingertips or toes
Skin cancer diagnosis
A specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to diagnose skin cancer:
- Physical exam. Your doctor will carefully examine your skin for any irregularities.
- Biopsy. Your specialist removes a small tissue sample (biopsy) from the suspicious-looking skin area for closer analysis in the lab.
Skin cancer treatment
A specialist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options for skin cancer:
- Freezing. If your skin cancer is in an early stage, your doctor may be able to freeze and remove the cancerous cells.
- Excisional surgery. In this procedure, your doctor cuts out the cancerous cells, along with some surrounding healthy tissue.
- Mohs surgery. In this treatment for larger, difficult-to-treat or recurrent skin cancer, your doctor removes the skin with the cancerous cells layer by layer. After cutting away each layer, your doctor examines the skin under a microscope to check for cancerous cells. Skin layers are cut away until no cancerous cells remain.
- Radiation therapy. This treatment uses high-energy beams – such as X-ray or protons – to destroy cancerous cells. People typically have to undergo several rounds of radiation therapy treatment for results.
- Chemotherapy. This treatment involves using medications – either oral (by mouth) or intravenous (by vein) – to destroy cancer cells.
- Photodynamic therapy. This treatment uses a combination of laser light and medications to destroy cancerous cells.
When should I seek care?
If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.