Skin Cancer – How, What, Why?

jones-dermatology-squamous-cell-carcinomaSkin cancer is the most common of all cancers. More than 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed each year. These cancers are classified as non –melanomas to set them apart from the more serious type of skin cancer, melanoma. They usually start in the basal cells or squamous cells, which is how they get their names. These cells are found at the base of the outer layer of the skin. Most basal and squamous cell cancers develop on sun-exposed areas of the skin, like the face, ear, neck, lips and the backs of the hands. Depending on the type, they can be fast or slow growing, but they rarely spread to other parts of the body. These skin cancers can be cured if found and treated early – that is the good news!

The sun’s ultraviolet rays are responsible for more than 90 percent of all skin cancers. There are three types of UV light, called A, B, and C.  UVC is filtered out by the atmosphere and does not get to your skin.  UVB was originally found to cause sunburn and skin cancer, but more recently, it has been discovered that UVA can also cause skin cancer.  The longer you are in the sun without protection, the greater the danger.

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two most common forms of skin cancer, and malignant melanoma is the most life-threatening.

An actinic keratosis is an abnormal skin growth, a pre-cancer, that can develop into skin cancer. Many people mistake AK’s, as they are commonly called, for age spots. They may appear red and scaly. If you have age spots or other spots on your skin, it is important to see a dermatologist.

Basal cell carcinoma can appear as a red patch; a shiny, pearly or translucent pink, red, or white bump; a crusty, open sore that will not heal; or a scar-like area. This is the most common type of skin cancer. Most are treatable. Seeing a dermatologist early is important. BCC’s can grow deep, making treatment more difficult.

Squamous cell carcinoma can take the form of a persistent scaly, red patch that sometimes crusts or bleeds; an open sore that does not heal; or a raised or wartlike growth that may bleed. This skin cancer tends to form on skin that has been exposed to the sun for years. When found early and treated, an SCC is curable.

Malignant melanoma occurs in varying shades of brown or black or in multicolored patches of red, white and blue.  It may have an asymmetrical outline with notched or scalloped edges, and is usually larger than 6 mm (1/4″). Melanomas can spread quickly. When treated before they spread to the lymph nodes, the cure rate is nearly 100%.

Research into malignant melanoma suggests that over-exposure to sunlight in first 25 years of life puts people at risk of getting melanomas later in life.  There are several other factors that increase the risk of skin cancer: having very fair skin that burns easily; having lots of moles (over 50) on your body; having had skin cancer before; or your close relatives having
skin cancer.

If you see any of the following signs of skin cancer or precancer, consult your dermatologist promptly. Early detection and prompt treatment can result in a complete cure for all types of skin cancer.

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