Skin Cancer Rate Increasing

Medical Author: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

The two most common kinds of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. (Carcinoma is cancer that begins in the cells that cover or line an organ.) Basal cell carcinoma accounts for more than 90% of all skin cancers in the United States. It is a slow-growing cancer that seldom spreads to other parts of the body. Squamous cell carcinoma also rarely spreads, but it does so more often than basal cell carcinoma. However, it is important that skin cancers are found and treated early because they can invade and destroy nearby tissue.

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are sometimes called non-melanoma skin cancer. Another type of cancer that occurs in the skin is melanoma, which begins in the melanocytes.

There is popular concern that the rates of both nonmelanoma and melanoma skin cancers are more frequent in recent decades than in the past. Research published in Archives of Dermatology (1997;133:735-740) demonstrates a clear increase in squamous cell skin cancers.

Dr. Darryl T. Gray and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic reviewed 1630 dermatology records dating from 1984 to 1992 to discover 511 cases of squamous cell cancer. They plotted the trend which clearly shows an increasing rate of first diagnosis of this form of skin cancer over this period.

Further, the authors of the study found that the skin cancers had a tendency to appear on the head, neck, and upper extremities. This is consistent with the notion that sun exposure is a causative factor in this form of cancer.

The authors recommend monitoring and prevention. MedicineNet editors agree and emphasize that viewers should avoid excessive sun exposure as well as use sunblock and sun-protective clothing when in the sun. Preventative measures are especially important for children.

MedicineNet Medical Editors also recommend looking out for warning signs of skin cancer. The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, especially a new growth or a sore that doesn't heal. Skin cancers don't all look the same. For example, the cancer may start as a small, smooth, shiny, pale, or waxy lump. It can also appear as a firm red lump. Sometimes, the lump bleeds or develops a crust. Skin cancer can also start as a flat, red spot that is rough, dry, or scaly.

Both basal and squamous cell cancers are found mainly on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun—the head, face, neck, hands, and arms. However, skin cancer can occur anywhere.

Changes in the skin are not sure signs of cancer; however, it is important to see a doctor if any symptom lasts longer than two weeks. Don't wait for the area to hurt—skin cancers seldom cause pain.

For more information, please visit the Skin Cancer and Melanoma Centers.

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