Skin Cancer Types
Many people fear skin cancer because it can be deadly. There are several skin cancer types, and some skin cancers are more dangerous than others. Skin cancer is a result of skin cells becoming malignant, which means that skin cancer causes abnormal growth of skin cells. Skin cancers occur when skin cells are exposed to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight. This happens because UV rays damage skin cells' DNA, which can lead to mutations and uncontrolled cell growth (which is how skin cancers like basal and squamous cell carcinoma arise).
Different Types of Skin Cancer
There are three main skin cancer types: Basal Cell carcinoma, Squamous cell Carcinoma (keratinocyte carcinomas), and Melanoma (malignant melanocytes).
- Basal Cell Carcinomas: This type of skin cancer affects the basal cells in the epidermis of skin tissue. They grow slowly but can cause serious harm if not treated immediately; they often spread to other parts of the body before being diagnosed, which is why early diagnosis is crucial for successful treatment. However, individuals suffering from basal cell carcinoma have a lower risk of dying from that cancer, as well as any other cause, than patients who have the second most common skin cancer -- squamous cell carcinoma.
- Squamous cell carcinomas: These types are more dangerous skin cancers. They develop in skin cells called keratinocytes, which are located on the skin's surface. However, they can be cured if treated early. Squamous cell carcinomas often develop in areas of the body frequently exposed to the sun.
- Melanoma: This type is the most serious skin cancer type based on mortality rates alone. Melanomas develop in melanocyte cells that produce skin pigment called melanin and spread throughout the body via the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Patients with thin melanomas have better survival rates than those with thick melanomas.
- Less Common Skin Cancer Types: Other skin cancer types are much less common than basal, squamous, and melanoma skin cancers; however, they are still very dangerous skin cancer types. Merkel cell carcinomas affect skin cells called Merkel cells in the skin's surface epidermis. Cutaneous T-cell skin lymphomas develop in the skin's immune system T-cells, which attack foreign substances like viruses and bacteria. Both of these skin cancer types can be treated successfully if caught early enough, but do not receive as much attention from the media because their mortality rates are lower than squamous skin carcinomas and melanomas.
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer type in the U.S. This type of skin cancer is more common in Caucasians, people who spend lots of time in the sun, or patients with previous skin damage from acute ultraviolet radiation exposure, such as sunburns. However, there has been an increase in basal cell carcinoma rates among young people ages 18-39 due to tanning bed use. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer incidence rates have been increasing in the U.S., and basal cell skin cancers are expected to increase faster than squamous skin cancers or melanomas over the next decade. "Basal-cell carcinoma accounts for about 80% of all skin cancers; it rarely spreads to other parts of the body and is usually curable if detected early." However, as mentioned above, basal skin cancer rates have been steadily increasing in the U.S.
Squamous cell skin carcinomas occur more frequently in older people with skin that has been damaged by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. However, because squamous skin cancer mortality rates are low and "because of its connection with cumulative UV exposure," this skin cancer type does not cause as much concern as basal and melanoma skin cancers.
Melanoma skin cancers can be very dangerous because they can spread quickly throughout the body via lymphatic vessels or blood vessels; for this reason, once a malignant melanoma is found in skin tissue, it is very difficult to treat.
Skin Cancer Symptoms
Basal Skin Cancer - This type of cancer often develops in sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face or neck. Symptoms and signs include:
- Small, shiny bumps on the skin with flat tops and red or white halos around them.
- Flat, flesh-colored lesions, or what appears to look like a brown scar.
- Persistent bleeding and scabbing sore.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma - Much like basal skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma develops on sun-exposed areas of the face, ears, and hands. Individuals with darker skin are more likely to develop this type of skin cancer in areas that are not often exposed to the sun. Symptoms include:
- Skin lesions that are not specific to skin cancer, but can appear anywhere on the skin, including the scalp or ear lobe. These skin lesions may be scaly or crusted and can bleed easily if lacerated.
- Firm, red nodules.
Melanoma - Melanoma may develop anywhere on the body. This includes normal areas of the skin or existing moles that may suddenly become cancerous. Melanoma can develop in areas that have not been exposed to the sun and can affect individuals of any skin tone. Skin cancer symptoms of melanoma are often not noticeable without a biopsy; however, if they do occur, patients may see pigmented areas on the skin that resemble moles. In individuals with darker skin tone, melanoma often develops in areas such as palms, soles, under the fingernails, or toenails. Other symptoms include:
- Large brown spots with dark speckles.
- Painful lesions that itch or burn.
- Moles that change color, size, or feel and sometimes may even bleed.
- Mucous membranes lining the nose, mouth, vagina, or anus.
Skin Cancer Treatment
When skin cancer is found in its early stages, the treatment usually includes the removal of the skin cancer lesion and a small margin of healthy skin surrounding it. While this may sound invasive, skin cancers that are detected and treated early tend to have a better prognosis than skin cancers that go untreated for too long.
It is important to note that skin cancer treatment varies depending on the skin cancer type. If an individual has been diagnosed with basal or squamous skin carcinomas or melanoma, their dermatologist may suggest surgery as the best treatment option or other specialized treatments, depending on the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis. If skin cancer is caught early, skin cancer treatment should be effective with minimal skin damage; if skin cancer is left untreated for too long, skin cancer treatments can leave skin scarred and, in extreme cases, cause death.
- Basal-cell skin cancers: These types of cancers have a greater chance of being cured when treated early because they rarely spread to other parts of the body. Treatment includes removal using cryotherapy (freezing), electrosurgery (burning), Mohs surgery (involving minute stages of surgery), or curettage/excision followed by skin reconstruction. Skin cancer treatment may also involve skin grafts.
- Melanoma skin cancers: These types of cancers can be deadly if they form deep within layers of skin or spread to other parts of the body; according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), melanomas most commonly develop on skin areas with high exposure to sunlight such as “the back, legs, face -- anywhere there has been intense sun exposure.” If an individual's doctor does diagnose them with melanoma skin cancer, it is impervious for them to see a dermatologist or skin-cancer specialist immediately. Melanomas are not easily cured, but they can be treated successfully if found early enough. Melanoma skin cancer treatment can involve surgery or radiation therapy, but these methods vary based on the stage of melanoma and the location of metastasis.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous skin cancer mortality rates increase with delayed detection because the disease has a much higher potential to spread throughout the body when discovered later in its course. When squamous cell carcinoma is treated, the most important thing for survivors to do is protect their skin from the sun at all costs and see a dermatologist once a year for a full-body check-up. Treatment for squamous cell carcinoma includes laser surgery, radiation, cryosurgery, photodynamic therapy, and more.
- Treatment for other types of cancer: The treatment for Merkel cell carcinomas and cutaneous T-cell skin lymphomas is similar to basal skin cancer treatment; however, these skin cancers are much less common than basal skin cancers, so the chance of finding them at their early stages is slim.
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Skin Cancer Prevention
Sun protection is a crucial aspect of skin cancer prevention. Individuals who have been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, melanomas, basal cell carcinomas, and cutaneous T-cell skin lymphomas should avoid direct sunlight when possible because sun exposure can cause additional squamous cell carcinomas to develop on the surface of the skin. Other important methods of skin cancer prevention:
- Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher before going outside to protect from harmful ultraviolet rays, which also cause squamous cell carcinomas to form.
- Wear sunglasses that offer UVA and UVB protection while out in the sun.
- Limit time spent outside during peak sunlight hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Wear sun-protective clothing like a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves in order to cover exposed areas of skin.
- Avoid tanning beds.
- Eat a balanced, healthy diet with mostly plant-based foods—fruits and veggies are good for the skin!
- Regular skin self-examinations