The Basics of Skin Cancer
Last updated: February 2023
Some of us have had skin cancer for a long time. We may have lost count of the number of skin cancer procedures we’ve had to remove cancerous or precancerous areas. Some of us may have been recently diagnosed with skin cancer and aren’t exactly sure what to expect, while some of us may be supporting a loved one through their journey with skin cancer. And some of us may have noticed an area that looks out of the ordinary but we aren’t sure if it is something that needs to be checked by a doctor. (I’ll give you the quick response to this one: err on the side of caution, and have anything suspicious or worrisome on your skin that doesn’t go away within a few weeks checked by a dermatologist).
Let's get back to the basics
I thought it might be a good idea to review the basics of skin cancer. This may be new information for some and a refresher for others. Even though I’ve had skin cancer since 1995, I find that I’m still learning new things about it.
Let's talk about the big three
The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form, with around 3.6 million cases diagnosed each year in the United States. Basal cell carcinomas can appear as shiny bumps or red patches, or they may also be a sore that doesn’t heal.
Basal cell carcinoma
BCC typically doesn’t metastasize (meaning they don’t typically spread to other organs), but that doesn’t mean basal cell carcinomas can be ignored. If left untreated, they can grow deep and grow wide under the skin, spreading to tissue and bone in the area of the cancer and can cause disfigurement.
Squamous cell carcinoma
SCC is diagnosed at the rate of approximately 1.8 million per year in the United States. They can appear as wart-looking areas, scaly patches, or open sores, and can sometimes grow rather quickly. Squamous cell carcinomas can metastasize if left untreated.
Melanoma is the most dangerous of the three skin cancers. Approximately 106,000 people a year in the U.S. are diagnosed with melanoma. Melanomas may or may not appear in moles, and they can be black or dark brown, but can also appear in other colors – blue, purple, white, pink, or red. The ABCDEs of melanoma (asymmetry, border, color, diameter, evolving) can be helpful in identifying suspicious areas. Melanomas can metastasize, and early treatment provides the best survival rate.
Rare skin cancers
Merkel cell carcinoma, dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, sebaceous gland carcinoma, Kaposi's sarcoma, and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma are the 5 most common of the rare skin cancers. They vary in presentation, symptoms, and their ability to metastasize.
Let's be aware of the causes
Over-exposure to the sun and the use of tanning beds are culprits of many of the cases of skin cancer each year. It’s important to limit your time in the sun, to not use tanning beds, and to be sure to do all you can to avoid sunburns. You should also be aware of any family history of skin cancer, as heredity can be a risk factor.
Examine, examine, examine
Keeping a close eye on your skin is a good way to notice any new area that may need to be checked by a dermatologist. Frequent self-skin checks are important, but so are routine skin checks by your doctor. Even though photos of skin cancer or reading descriptions of the various types of skin cancer can be helpful in identifying suspicious areas, it is always best to have a professional opinion. Your skin cancer may or may not look like someone else’s skin cancer did. Remember, early detection and treatment are best!
What is one "basic" piece of information about skin cancer that you wish everyone knew?
Do you sunscreen in the fall?