Health Topics

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer people get in the United States. If not treated, it can be deadly. But if treated early, skin cancer often can be cured. Moreover, by taking a few safeguards, you can greatly reduce your risk of ever getting skin cancer.

What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is a tumor or growth of abnormal cells in our skin. The most common type of skin cancer is called basal cell carcinoma. Another common skin cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers occur in the surface layer of the skin. When found early, they can be easily cured. The most serious type of skin cancer is called malignant melanoma. Malignant melanomas are more likely to spread.

What are the Signs of Skin Cancer?

Skin cancers can appear as moles, scaly patches, open sores, or raised bumps. These signs can vary, depending on the form of skin cancer present. Different types of skin cancer share some of the same signs, so it’s important to get any moles or bumps of concern checked. Here are some signs to look for:

Basal Cell Carcinoma

  • A flat, scaly red patch
  • A small, smooth, shiny, or waxy bump (bumps may bleed or develop a crust)
  • A patch with large blood vessels (may look like a birthmark)
  • A brown or black raised bump

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

  • A flat, scaly red patch (may look similar to a skin rash)
  • A small, smooth, shiny, or waxy bump (bumps may bleed or develop a crust)
  • A red or brown scaly skin patch

Malignant Melanoma

  • A new mole
  • A mole that is getting bigger
  • A mole that changes color or shape
  • A mole that bleeds
  • A mole that itches or causes pain
  • A mole with an uneven border or shape

Who is Most at risk for Skin Cancer?

The following people are most at risk for skin cancer:

  • People with a lot of freckle
  • People who get sunburned
  • People with a family history of skin cancer
  • People with light skin
  • People with blue eyes

How Can I Know if I Have Skin Cancer?

If you have a mole or other skin lesion that is causing you concern, show it to your health care provider. He or she will check your skin and may ask you to see another doctor to have the mole or bump removed. Whatever is removed will be sent to a laboratory to be viewed under a microscope. The results will be back at your clinic within two weeks.

Can Skin Cancer be Prevented?

In many cases, skin cancer can be prevented. The best way to protect yourself is to avoid too much sun and sunburns. Health care providers believe that ultraviolet rays (UV rays) from the sun damage the skin and over time lead to skin cancer. Here are ways to protect yourself:

  • Don’t spend long periods of time in direct sunlight.
  • Wear hats with brims to protect your face and ears.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect your arms and legs.
  • Use broad spectrum sunscreens with a SPF (skin protection factor) of 15 or higher that protect against burning and tanning rays. Apply the lotion 30 minutes before you go outside. (Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against UV-B and UV-A rays.)
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
  • Use a lip balm with sunscreen.
  • Avoid the sun between 10am and 4pm.
  • Show any changing mole to your health care provider.

How is Skin Cancer Treated?

Skin cancer is treated by removing the skin lesion and a part of the normal skin surrounding it. The procedure is often performed in the doctor’s office. First, the area is numbed with medicine. A small knife is then used to cut out the skin cancer. Other treatments include freezing (cryotherapy), scraping and burning (electrodesiccation and curettage), and radiation therapy. If lesions are larger and more likely to return, the doctor may cut out small sections from the tumor and view these sections under a microscope (Mohs surgery). The earlier skin cancer is removed, the better your chances for a full recovery.