What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is an unusual growth of skin cells. This type of cancer most often develops because of damage to the skin from exposure to UV light from the sun or a tanning bed.

Common related conditions
Actinic Keratoses Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) Melanoma

Types of skin cancer

There are several different types of skin cancer, but the three main types are:

  • Basal cell carcinomas
  • Squamous cell carcinomas
  • Melanomas

Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers often appear on the parts of the body that are exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck or face. They are highly curable, whereas the third type — melanoma — is far more serious.

Causes of skin cancer

The main cause of skin cancer is damage to the outer layers of the skin. This usually happens because of exposure to UV light. That is why skin cancer most often occurs on the parts of the body that spend more time in the sun.

Causes of skin cancer on other parts of the body include exposure to harmful substances or a weak immune system (when you get sick easily).

Risk factors for skin cancer

While anyone can get skin cancer, there are a few things that put certain groups of people at a greater risk. Fair skin offers less natural UV protection, making those with lighter skin more likely to develop skin cancer than those with darker skin.

Other factors that increase someone's risk for developing skin cancer include:

  • Too much sun exposure
  • A lot of sunburns over time
  • Having several moles
  • Family history of skin cancer

Symptoms of skin cancer

The symptoms of skin cancer vary depending on the type. It is important to have a doctor check any abnormal spots on the skin to determine if you have skin cancer and identify the type.

Basal cell skin cancer occurs on sun-exposed parts of the body and can have the appearance of a flesh-colored or brown spot or a pearly bump.

Squamous cell skin cancer also occurs on sun-exposed parts of the body and typically looks like a flat spot with a scaly surface or a hard, red bump on the skin.

Melanomas can occur anywhere on the body regardless of sun exposure. These are dark moles that have a speckled appearance, are irregular in shape, change color or bleed.

Diagnosis of skin cancer

Diagnosis of skin cancer requires an examination by a doctor. Because there are several different types of skin cancer and other skin conditions, only a professional can determine the type and the extent of the cancer.

First, doctors perform a visual exam of the concerning areas of the skin to determine if you need further testing. If these areas look suspicious, the doctor will remove a small sample of the skin and send it off for testing. The test determines if the spot on the skin is cancerous, and if so, what type of cancer it is.

Treatments for skin cancer

The treatment options for skin cancer can be both surgical and non-surgical. The most common treatments for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor mole or lesion
  • Freezing to destroy the abnormal skin cells
  • Laser therapy to destroy abnormal cells on the outer layers of the skin
  • Radiation therapy for skin cancers in areas that are harder to treat, such as the eyelids
  • Topical creams and lotions to treat skin cancers on the outer layers of the skin

The treatment options for melanoma depend on the stage of the cancer and if it has spread to other areas of the body. Treatments often include a combination of surgery, immunotherapy, targeted therapy and chemotherapy.

In some instances, a doctor may suggest taking part in a clinical trial, which is a research study with a new or experimental treatment that has shown a lot of promise in effectively treating melanoma.

Recovery from skin cancer

In many instances, skin cancer is treated in a doctor's office instead of a hospital. You may have some pain, bleeding or scarring in the area of the skin where the doctor removed the cancer. However, recovery is quick and many people can resume their normal activities with little or no interference. For melanoma skin cancers that have spread to the lymph nodes, a longer recovery is necessary.

Early detection and treatment is crucial to treating and recovering from skin cancer. Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers rarely spread to other parts of the body, and the five-year survival rate of those with early-stage melanomas is 99 percent, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

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