Skin Changes, How to Spot Skin Cancer
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. Sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer, and people with fair skin and light eyes whose skin has a tendency to burn easily in the sun are most susceptible to the damaging effects of the sun's UV rays. Fortunately, most skin cancers can be detected in their early stages since skin tumors are more visible than tumors of the internal organs.
Three types of cancers account for virtually 100% of skin cancers. The nonmelanomatous skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Malignant melanoma is the third, and most deadly, type of skin cancer.
Basal cell carcinoma is by far the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for 80% of cases. These slow-growing tumors occur most commonly on areas of the body that are exposed to sun and may take several forms. A raised, reddish, pearly nodule is the most common appearance of basal cell carcinoma, but it may also appear as a pink or red scar or area of irritated skin. Basal cell carcinomas metastasize (spread via the bloodstream or lymphatic channels) very rarely; instead, they grow invasively into surrounding tissues and can cause localized tissue destruction when not completely removed.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer, representing about 16% of all skin cancers. As with basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma occurs most often in sun-exposed areas and in elderly people. Its appearance is similar to a chronic ulcerated area of the skin or a crusty or scaly skin lesion. Unlike basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell cancers metastasize to other parts of the body when they are not detected and removed at an early stage.
The deadliest skin cancer, melanoma, accounts for only 4% of skin cancers. This type of cancer often spreads to the lymph nodes and internal organs. While melanomas have a variety of physical appearances, they are most often pigmented lesions greater than 0.6 mm (about the size of a pencil eraser) in diameter. They may show a range of colors and generally have an irregularly-shaped, asymmetrical border. Melanoma can be cured by surgical removal if detected before spread to other organs has occurred. About 95% of melanomas can be cured when the cancer is limited to the outermost layer of the skin, but the prognosis is poor when melanoma has spread to other parts of the body.
Early detection is essential for successful treatment of skin cancers. You should consult your doctor if you have any suspicious skin changes or lesions including:
Avoidance of sun exposure and use of appropriate sunscreen products are the best ways to prevent all skin cancers.
Last Editorial Review: 12/26/2006