Skin Cancer FAQs

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is an out-of-control growth of skin cells. There are three main types of skin cancer, each made of a different type of cell. They are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. There are also several more rare types of skin cancer.

The causes of skin cancer and their treatment and prognoses vary greatly depending upon the type of skin cancer and its stage.

Who is at risk for skin cancer?

Not everyone who is at risk for skin cancer will get skin cancer. However, knowing what puts you at risk can help you make important changes and be aware of warning signs. The following are some of the most serious risk factors for skin cancer.

  • Frequent sunburns
  • Long-term or intermittent sun exposure
  • Fair skin
  • Older adults
  • Males
  • Many moles or unusual moles
  • Previous skin cancer
  • Smoking

Is skin cancer serious?

Most skin cancers, including melanoma, can be treated and removed when they are caught early. However, skin cancer can reoccur after successful treatment, and can also change types. Therefore, skin cancer should be taken seriously.

Melanoma is more dangerous than the non-melanoma cancers because it can more easily spread or "metastasize" to other parts of the body. For this reason, 75% of skin cancer deaths are related to melanoma.2

Skin cancer is much less dangerous if caught early. More than 91% of people are still alive 5 years after being diagnosed with melanoma.3 The survival rate for local melanoma (melanoma which has not spread to other parts of the body) is 98.4%.2

What are the different types of skin cancer?

There are three common types of skin cancer. Each type develops in a different kind of cell, in a different layer of the skin. They are:

Both basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are non-melanoma cancers. It is uncommon for either cancer to spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma is less common than squamous cell or basal cell.1 Melanoma can spread more easily to other parts of the body, but if caught early, can often be treated and removed. Because those with one skin cancer are at a higher risk for developing another, it is recommended that checks be performed at specific intervals for a certain number of years, depending on the type of skin cancer.

There are several other types of skin cancer that are more rare. These include:

These cancers make up less than 1% of all skin cancers.4 Like the more common skins cancers, they develop in specific places. Our article on skin cancer types goes into more detail.

What are the common symptoms?

The following are some general signs of skin cancer. Experts recommend regular self-examinations to watch for changes in skin markings.

  • Sore or cut that bleeds easily and does not heal
  • Lesion that is changing in shape, size, or color
  • Redness, swelling, oozing, crusting on a lesion
  • Change in the look or feel of an area of skin
  • Lesion that starts to feel itchy, tender, or painful
  • Change in the surface or appearance of a mole
  • Each type of skin cancer has more specific skin symptoms. Melanomas are typically black or brown lesions. The ABCDE memory aid can help you remember characteristics to watch out for:

  • Asymmetry
  • Border irregularity
  • Color variation/unevenness
  • Diameter of 6 mm or more
  • Evolution or changes in the mole
  • How is skin cancer diagnosed?

    More than 40% of skin cancers are found by the patient themselves, and self-examinations are recommended by The Skin Cancer Foundation and the American Academy of Dermatology.5 Dermatologists and some primary care doctors can perform a total body skin exam.

    If the lesion looks suspicious, your doctor may decide to perform a skin biopsy. A sample of skin will be sent to a laboratory. In the laboratory, a pathologist studies the sample under a microscope. The pathologist looks for abnormal cells that indicate cancer. If it is cancer, the biopsy sample provides important information about the cancer stage, which will result in a diagnosis and allow you and your care providers to build a treatment plan.

    Who should be screened for skin cancer?

    The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that everyone be screened for skin cancer.5 If you are at high risk for skin cancer, your doctor may recommend self-examinations along with regular skin exams by a dermatologist.3 Checking your skin only requires the following tools:

  • Good lighting
  • Full-length mirror
  • Handheld mirror
  • Chair
  • Body map
  • You will use these tools to mark spots on the body map. Record freckles, moles, birthmarks, bumps, sores, scabs, and rough patches.5 Note their size and color, and describe other characteristics.6 Write the date on your map and compare it with your previous record. Sample body maps are available from the American Academy of Dermatology (map) and Skin Cancer Foundation map.

    You can also use photographs marked with the date of exam. Make sure to make a backup for the digital photos in case a copy is lost.

    What does skin cancer treatment involve?

    Treatment for skin cancer is determined by several factors, including:

    • How advanced or widespread the cancer is (also called the cancer stage)
    • Skin cancer type
    • Your overall health

    Skin cancer can be treated in several different ways. Not all treatment approaches are appropriate for every patient or cancer. Treatment options may include:

  • Surgery - removal of the skin tumor. Surgery is the first choice of treatment for many people with skin cancer. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the lymph nodes may be removed too.
  • Radiation therapy - the use of high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be used as a main treatment, adjuvant (secondary) treatment, or palliative therapy.
  • Local treatment procedures - procedures that only affect the top layers of skin may be used to remove actinic keratosis (a precancer) and some non-melanoma skin cancers.
  • Topical medications – medications applied to the skin are used to treat actinic keratosis and some basal cell carcinomas.
  • Targeted therapy - medications aimed at the mutations that make cancer cells different from normal cells. This means that their effect is directed specifically at the cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy - medications in this class treat skin cancer by turning your own immune system against the cancer.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy - treatment for advanced melanoma that uses an oncolytic virus. This weakened virus is injected into the tumor, where it makes copies of itself. The virus kills tumor cells directly and also generates a response from your immune system.
  • Chemotherapy - chemotherapy medications are drugs that kill or damage rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. Chemotherapy is not used often now for skin cancer.
  • Complementary medicine - complementary practices may be used in combination with conventional treatment to relieve stress, reduce side effects or symptoms, and improve well-being.
  • What are some common side effects of treatment?

    Side effects depend on one's chosen treatment.

    One of the more common side effects is scarring from surgery. Skin cancer scars can provoke a range of emotions. It is possible to develop depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, lifestyle changes, fears of leaving the house or meeting new individuals, or difficulties in completing daily activities and sleeping. In some cases, skin cancer and its scars can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The support of others, including friends, family, support groups, and/or therapists, is an important resource for recovery.

    Some other potential side effects include lymphedema for those who have had their lymph nodes surgically removed, skin irritation from photodynamic therapy and radiation therapy and skin changes or irritation from laser surgery. Many of these side effects are uncommon. You can read articles about treatment and side effects for each skin cancer type here.

    What is the prognosis for someone with skin cancer?

    The 5-year overall survival rate for melanoma is 91.5%.3 That means that 5 years after being diagnosed with melanoma of any type, about 92 out of 100 people are still alive. This estimate includes people of all genders, all races, and all stages at diagnosis.

    One important factor in estimating survival is how far the cancer has spread by the time it is diagnosed. Local melanoma is melanoma that has not spread beyond the original tumor. About 84% of melanomas are caught at this early stage. The 5-year survival rate for local melanoma is 98.4%.5 The 5-year survival rate for regional melanoma (melanoma that has spread to the nearby lymph nodes) is 62.4%.3 About 4% of melanoma cases have metastasized to distant locations at the time of diagnosis. The 5-year survival for distant metastatic melanoma is 17.9%.3

    Most BCCs can be treated and removed with minor surgery or other local treatment. The goals of treatment are to completely remove all cancer cells while preserving the function and appearance of the affected body part. Mohs micrographic surgery for BCC has highest cure rate: 99% for a BCC that has never been treated before.7 Even when one BCC is removed, your risk of another separate BCC is increased. It is important to check with your doctor about follow-up exams.

    When SCC is found early—and most are—treatment usually cures this cancer. The first choice of treatment is to remove the tumor. Mohs surgery cures 97% of SCC. About 92% of SCC can be cured with excision. Curettage and electrodesiccation cures 96% of low-risk tumors. Even when one SCC is removed, your risk of another separate SCC is increased. It is important to check with your doctor about follow-up exams.8

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