Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of all cancers in the United States and is identified when the cells that make up our skin begin to grow and rapidly divide in a disorganized manner. There are 3 main types of skin cancer:
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancer and may also sometimes be referred to as "non-melanoma skin cancer."
Melanoma is not as common as basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, but is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. If left untreated or caught in a late stage, melanomas are more likely to spread to organs beyond the skin, making it difficult to treat and increasing the chances of death from skin cancer.
Fortunately, if skin cancer is identified and treated early, most are cured. This is why it is important to take a few safeguards and to talk with your healthcare provider if you think you are showing any signs of skin cancer.
Although anyone can develop skin cancer, those that are most at risk for skin cancer are people who:
People who work or spend more time outdoors have an increased risk for skin cancer, especially those in sunny climates. People with darker skin are still able to get skin cancer, but the risk is substantially lower. Organ transplant patients are up to 100 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma skin cancer when compared to the general population, largely because they take medications that suppress their immune systems.
Risk factors unique to melanoma include a history of severe sunburns and an abundance of large and irregular moles.
The main cause of skin cancer is overexposure to sunlight, especially when it results in sunburn and blistering. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can damage the skin and, over time, lead to skin cancer. The UV light damages DNA in the skin and causes it to grow abnormally. Exposure to certain chemicals such as tar and coal can cause skin cancer for those with jobs that require them to frequently be in contact with these chemicals. Those with a weakened immune system also have an increased risk for skin cancer.
Skin cancer can be a portion or spot of skin that does not heal. If you scrape your knee, it will usually heal within a month. Skin cancer will not heal.
The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, typically a new growth, or a change in an existing growth or mole.
Be alert to pre-cancerous skin lesions that can develop into non-melanoma skin cancer. They appear as small scaly, tan or red spots, and are most often found on surfaces of the skin chronically exposed to the sun, such as the face and backs of the hands.
If you have a mole or other skin lesion that is causing you concern, show it to your healthcare provider. He or she will check your skin and may ask you to see a dermatologist to have the lesion further evaluated. If needed to help with the diagnosis, the doctor can take a biopsy (remove a small sample) and send it to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope. The doctor will be able to call you with the results in about a week.
Skin cancer is diagnosed by performing a biopsy. This is the removal of a sample of tissue that is then processed in a laboratory for detailed examination under a microscope by a pathologist. Sometimes a biopsy alone can remove all the cancer tissue and no further treatment is needed.
Treatment depends upon the stage of the cancer. Some types of treatment include the following:
Radiation therapy or topical therapy can be used for cancers in places that are hard to reach with surgery or for patients who are not able to have surgery.
In most cases, skin cancer can be prevented. The best way to protect yourself is to avoid too much sunlight and sunburns. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun damage the skin, and over time lead to skin cancer.
Here are ways to protect yourself from skin cancer:
Nearly all skin cancers can be cured if they are treated before they have a chance to spread. The earlier skin cancer is found and removed, the better your chances for a full recovery. Ninety percent of those with basal cell skin cancer are cured. It is important to continue following up with a doctor to make sure the cancer does not return. If something seems wrong, call a doctor right away.
National Cancer Institute-Cancer Information Service
American Academy of Dermatology
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/15/2019.