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Skin Cancer

Skin cancer - the abnormal growth of skin cells - most often develops on skin exposed to the sun. But this common form of cancer also can occur on areas of the skin not ordinarily exposed to sunlight.

There are different types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are slow growing and highly treatable, especially if found early. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. It affects deeper layers of the skin and has the greatest potential to spread to other tissues in the body.

Skin cancers are sometimes classified as either melanoma or nonmelanoma. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common nonmelanoma skin cancers. Other nonmelanoma skin cancers are Kaposi's sarcoma, Merkel cell carcinoma, and cutaneous lymphoma.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the Unites States. Known risk factors for skin cancer include the following:

  • Complexion - Skin cancers are more common in people with light-colored skin, hair, and eyes.
  • Genetics - Having a family history of melanoma increases the risk of developing this cancer.
  • Age - Nonmelanoma skin cancers are more common after age 40.
  • Sun exposure and sunburn - Most skin cancers occur on areas of the skin that are regularly exposed to sunlight or other ultraviolet radiation. This is considered the primary cause of all skin cancers.

Skin cancer can develop in anyone, not only people with these risk factors. Young, healthy people - even those with with dark skin, hair, and eyes - can develop skin cancer.

A cancerous skin lesion can appear suddenly or develop slowly. Its appearance depends on the type of cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma

This is the most common skin cancer, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all cases. It's also the most easily treated and the least likely to spread. Basal cell carcinoma usually appears as one of the following:

  • A pearly or waxy bump on your face, ears or neck.
  • A flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion on your chest or back.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is easily treated if detected early, but it's slightly more apt to spread than is basal cell carcinoma. Most often, squamous cell carcinoma appears as one of the following:

  • A firm, red nodule on your face, lips, ears, neck, hands or arms.
  • A flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface on your face, ears, neck, hands or arms.
  • Melanoma

    This is the most serious form of skin cancer and the one responsible for most skin cancer deaths. Melanoma can develop in otherwise normal skin or in an existing mole that turns malignant. Although it can occur anywhere on the body, melanoma appears most often on the upper back or face in both men and women.

    Warning signs of melanoma include:

    • A large brownish spot with darker speckles located anywhere on your body.
    • A simple mole located anywhere on your body that changes in color, size or feel or that bleeds.
    • A small lesion with an irregular border and red, white, blue or blue-black spots on your trunk or limbs
    • Shiny, firm, dome-shaped bumps located anywhere on your body.
    • Dark lesions on your palms, soles, fingertips and toes, or on mucous membranes lining your mouth, nose, vagina and anus.

    Screening and diagnosis

    See your doctor if you notice a new skin growth, a bothersome change in your skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn't heal in two weeks. Your doctor may suspect cancer by simply looking at your skin. But to properly diagnose skin cancer, your doctor will need to take a small sample of your skin (biopsy) for analysis in a lab. A biopsy can usually be done in a doctor's office using local anesthetic.

    Treatment

    Treatment for skin cancer and the precancerous skin lesions known as actinic keratoses varies, depending on the size, type, depth and location of the lesions. Often the abnormal cells are surgically removed or destroyed with topical medications. Most treatments require only a local anesthetic and can be done in an outpatient setting. Sometimes no treatment is necessary beyond an initial biopsy that removes the entire growth.

    Prevention

    Most skin cancers can be prevented by limiting or avoiding exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and by paying attention to suspicious changes in your skin. If caught early enough, most skin cancers can be successfully treated.

    Source: Mayo Clinic Web Site; Healthline Web site

    Adapted by Editorial Staff, May 2007. Last update, August 2008

 


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