Skin cancer


What is skin cancer?

One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, making it the most common cancer in the United States. In fact, more skin cancers are diagnosed in the U.S. each year than all other cancers combined. Luckily skin cancer can be treated effectively when diagnosed early, and there are also a number of ways for patients to protect themselves against it.

There are three main types of skin cancer – basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma – and each begins in the cells of the skin. Basal and squamous cell cancers are by far the most common cancers of the skin. Both are typically found on parts of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun, such as the neck, head and arms. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body but is more likely to appear on the back, chest, face, legs or neck.

There are many other types of skin cancers such as Merkel cell, cutaneous lymphoma, skin adnexal tumors and various types of sarcoma including Kaposi’s. Combined, though, these types of skin cancer account for less than 1 percent of all skin cancers. Consult with an ETMC First Physician for more information.

Signs and symptoms of skin cancer

New growths, spots, bumps, patches or sores that don’t heal after several weeks are usually the first sign of skin cancer. In some cases, shaving cuts that take longer than normal to heal and bleed easily can also be a sign of potential skin cancer, though the cancer is not related to shaving.

Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are found mainly on parts of the body exposed to the sun. Basal cell cancers can appear in a number of ways, such as

  • flat, firm, pale or yellow areas, similar to a scar
  • raised reddish patches that might be itchy
  • small, pink or red, translucent, shiny, pearly bumps, which might have blue, brown or black areas
  • pink growths with raised edges and a lower area in their center, which might contain abnormal blood vessels
  • open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal or that heal and then return

Squamous cell carcinomas typically appear as

  • rough or scaly red patches that might crust or bleed
  • raised growths or lumps which sometimes have a lower area in the center
  • open sores that don’t heal or that heal and then come back
  • wart like growths

Melanomas can occur anywhere on the body but typically start in certain areas, such as the back, chest, face, legs and neck. New spots on the skin or a spot that changes in size, shape or color is typically the first and most important warning sign for melanoma.

Risk factors for skin cancer

There are numerous risk factors that can lead to skin cancer. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays greatly increases one’s risk of developing skin cancer and is widely considered the most common. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays. While it isn’t necessary to completely avoid the sun, it is important to protect and cover your skin when outside for extended periods of time. Sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher is a good defense against the sun’s harmful rays. Apply 20 to 30 minutes before going outdoors and be sure to reapply at least every two hours. Comfortable clothes that are light-colored and made of tightly woven fabrics as well as wide-brimmed hats that shade your face, neck and ears should also be worn to protect high-risk areas.

Personal and family history of skin cancer also greatly increases one’s chances of developing the disease. Patients who have a parent or sibling who has had skin cancer have an increased risk while those who have developed skin cancer in the past are also at a heightened risk of developing it again.

While skin cancer can be a threat to anyone regardless of skin color, those who are considered to be fair-skinned with less pigment (melanin) are typically at a higher risk as their skin provides less natural protection for damaging UV radiation. People who have blond or red hair, have light-colored eyes and freckle or sunburn easily typically are more likely to develop skin cancer. A history of sunburns also adds to the risk – especially those who have had one or more blistering sunburns in their youth.

People who have numerous moles on their body or have abnormal moles called dysplastic nevi are also at an increased risk of developing skin cancer. These moles are more likely to become cancerous over time and are typically irregular in appearance while being larger than normal moles. Patients who have a history of abnormal moles should watch them carefully and speak with an ETMC First Physician if they notice any changes or sudden growths.

Screenings for skin cancer

The ETMC Cancer Institute utilizes a variety of screening methods for skin cancer. Each patient is evaluated on an individual basis to determine the best course of action to pursue.

Self-examination is an important part of skin cancer screening and should be done on a monthly basis. A self-examination of the skin should be conducted in a well-lit room using a full-length mirror. Hand-held mirrors can be used to check areas that are hard to see, such as the back of your neck and thighs. Be thorough with each examination and check all surface areas of your body, including buttocks and genitalia, in between fingers and toes, underneath breasts, behind ears and along the scalp. Abnormalities, such as new growths, spots, bumps, patches and sores that don’t heal after several weeks, should be brought to the attention of an ETMC First Physician.

When checking for irregularities on your skin, use the ABCDE rule as a simple beginner’s guide and check with an ETMC First Physician if you notice any of the following:

A is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.

B is for Border: The edges of a mole, spot are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.

C is for Color: T skin color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.

D is for Diameter: The spot is larger than one-half inch across –  although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.

E is for Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

Treatment for skin cancer

Skin cancer treatment is determined on a case-by-case basis. Our team of experts at the ETMC Cancer Institute work together to help formulate detailed treatment plans to help fight skin cancer with advanced treatment and therapy modalities as well as personalized support services.

For more information regarding skin cancer, schedule an appointment with an ETMC First Physician.