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Diseases & Conditions

Skin Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is skin cancer?

A. Skin cancer is a tumor or growth of abnormal cells in our skin. The most common type of skin cancer is called basal cell carcinoma. Another common skin cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers occur in the surface layer of the skin. When found early, they can be easily cured. The most serious type of skin cancer is called malignant melanoma. Malignant melanomas are more likely to spread.

Q: What are the signs of skin cancer?

A. Skin cancers can appear as moles, scaly patches, open sores or raised bumps. These signs can vary, depending on the form of skin cancer present. Different types of skin cancer share some of the same signs, so it's important to get any moles or bumps of concern checked. Here are some signs to look for:

Basal Cell Carcinoma
  • A flat, scaly red patch
  • A small, smooth, shiny or waxy bump (bumps may bleed or develop a crust)
  • A patch with large blood vessels (may look like a birthmark)
  • A brown or black raised bump
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
  • A flat, scaly red patch (may look similar to a skin rash)
  • A small, smooth, shiny or waxy bump (bumps may bleed or develop a crust)
  • A red or brown scaly skin patch
Malignant Melanoma
  • A new mole
  • A mole that is getting bigger
  • A mole that changes color or shape
  • A mole that bleeds
  • A mole that itches or causes pain
  • A mole with an uneven border or shape
Q: Who is most at risk for skin cancer?

A. The following people are most at risk for skin cancer:

  • People with a lot of freckles
  • People who get sunburned
  • People with a family history of skin cancer
  • People with light skin
  • People with blue eyes
Q: How can I know if I have skin cancer?

A. If you have a mole or other skin lesion that is causing you concern, show it to your health care provider. He or she will check your skin and may ask you to see another doctor to have the mole or bump removed. Whatever is removed will be sent to a laboratory to be viewed under a microscope. The results will be back at your clinic within two weeks.

Q: Can skin cancer be prevented?

A. In many cases, skin cancer can be prevented. The best way to protect yourself is to avoid too much sun and sunburns. Health care providers believe that ultraviolet rays (UV rays) from the sun damage the skin and over time lead to skin cancer. Here are ways to protect yourself:

  • Don't spend long periods of time in direct sunlight.
  • Wear hats with brims to protect your face and ears.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect your arms and legs.
  • Use broad spectrum sunscreens with a SPF (skin protection factor) of 15 or higher that protect against burning and tanning rays. Apply the lotion 30 minutes before you go outside. (Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against UV-B and UV-A rays.)
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
  • Use a lip balm with sunscreen.
  • Show any changing mole to your health care provider.
Q: How is skin cancer treated?

A. Skin cancer is treated by removing the skin lesion and a part of the normal skin surrounding it. The procedure is often performed in the doctor's office. First, the area is numbed with medicine. A small knife is then used to cut out the skin cancer. Other treatments include freezing (cryotherapy), scraping and burning (electrodesiccation and curettage) and radiation therapy. If lesions are larger and more likely to return, the doctor may cut out small sections from the tumor and view these sections under a microscope (Mohs surgery). The earlier skin cancer is removed, the better your chances for a full recovery.

Q: Where can I learn more?

A. National Cancer Institute-Cancer Information Service
800.4.CANCER (422.6237)

American Academy of Dermatology
P.O. Box 4014
Schaumberg , IL 60168-4014
847.330.0230

Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of all cancers in the United States , and is on the rise. This year, an estimated one million Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer, and 9,000 will die from the disease. Fortunately, skin cancer almost always can be cured when detected and treated early. Seeking medical attention at the first suspicion of skin cancer is critical to successful treatment.

Q: I want to get my skin "ready" for spring break by going to a tanning salon. Some people say it’s a good idea; others say it is not. Who’s right?

A. There’s no such thing as a "safe tan" from a tanning salon. In fact, studies indicate that such tans actually prepare the skin for even greater damage from subsequent exposure to sunlight.

More than 1,500 Americans end up in hospital emergency rooms each year with burns suffered at commercial tanning salons, according data from the American Academy of Dermatology.

But that’s just the immediate effects. Prolonged exposure to the ultraviolet radiation in tanning booths can lead to wrinkles, the early onset of skin cancer, damage to the eyes, and suppression of the immune system.

The number of cases of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, increased by 34 percent in the U.S. between 1973 and 1992. In addition, we’re seeing more cases of skin cancer involving people in their 20s and 30s, whereas it used to almost exclusively affect older people. The glamorous image of the golden tan and vast amounts of misinformation about tanning salons – as well as sun-bathing – are partly to blame.

Moreover, salons often fail to tailor the tanning sessions to the needs of the individual. Operators must take into account skin type, the level of exposure in previous visits, and any medications the customer is taking which could induce an allergic reaction to the ultraviolet light. And protective goggles are a must.

The best course, however, is to avoid tanning salons, limit your exposure to direct sunlight, or at least use a dermatologist-approved sun screen if you must be in the sun for a long time. Ten or 20 years from now, you’ll be thankful you took such precautions.