Skin Cancer Facts

What is skin cancer?
Skin cancer is a malignant condition caused by uncontrolled growth of cells in one of the layers of the skin.

What causes skin cancer?
Prolonged and/or intermittent overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the primary cause of skin cancer. The majority of all skin cancers occur on parts of the body that are unprotected by clothing, and in individuals who spend long hours in the sun. Less common causes include overexposure to x-rays or certain chemical carcinogens such as arsenic.

Are all skin cancers the same?
No, there are several different kinds of skin cancer, distinguished by the types of cells the tumors resemble. The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer. It can cause considerable damage if allowed to invade the skin to underlying structures. It does not spread to other organs through the bloodstream like some cancers, and it grows slowly. Although this skin cancer hardly ever spreads, or metastasizes, to vital organs, it can damage surrounding tissue, sometimes causing considerable destruction and even the loss of an eye, ear, or nose. Choice of treatment is based on the type, size, location, and depth of penetration of the tumor, as well as the patient’s age and general health.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer. The carcinomas are raised, red or pink, opaque nodules, or warty growths that ulcerate in the center. They typically develop on the rim of the ear, the face, lips, mouth, hands, and other sun-exposed areas of the body. They will increase in size, occasionally developing into large, ulcerating, mushroom-like tumors. Although squamous cell carcinomas usually remain confined to the epidermis for some time, they eventually penetrate the underlying tissues if not treated. In a small percentage of cases, they spread (metastasize) to distant tissues and organs. When this happens, they can be fatal.

Malignant melanoma is the most serious of all skin cancers. It is a cancer that arises from the pigment (tanning) cells of the upper layer of the skin or from similar cells that make up moles (nevi). After a period of time—from months to years—this type of cancer sends down “roots” into deeper layers of the skin. Some of these microscopic extensions can spread new tumor growths (metastases) to vital organs of the body. The incidence of melanoma is rising more rapidly than that of any other cancer in the U.S. Fortunately, melanoma is one of the easiest tumors to find and one of the easiest to cure if it is found and removed early.

How does sunlight affect the skin?
Years of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays cause the skin to become thicker and coarser, giving it a “leathery” look quite different in appearance from skin that has been protected from the sun. Ultraviolet light also causes changes in pigmentation; some of these are completely benign, but others may be precancerous. As the total amount of your sun damage increases, so do your chances of developing a form of skin cancer. Although skin cancer used to be see only in the elderly, it’s now occurring in younger people.

Can skin cancer be prevented?
Yes, experts believe that the majority of skin cancers could be prevented if individuals would take simple precautions against the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Most skin cancers are caused by sun damage, so protecting your skin against the sun is the single most important preventive measure. Avoid the sun as much as possible; wear a hat when you go out in the sun; and be sure to use a sunscreen with a high sun-protection factor (SPF 15 or higher). The SPF, or sun-protection factor, indicates how long you can stay in the sun before damaging your skin. If you normally start to burn after 10 minutes in the sun without protection, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will allow you to stay in the sun for up to 150 minutes before burning. A good habit to get into is to wear a sunscreen or sunblock whenever you spend time in the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest and most damaging. If you swim or work up a sweat, it’s a good idea to reapply the sunscreen. A wide-brimmed hat and cotton shirt can provide extra protection, especially on days when you plan to be outside for several hours.

It is also important to examine your skin regularly, and to see your dermatologist if you spot any unusual growths.

Can skin cancer be cured?
Yes, when detected and treated in time, most skin cancers can be treated successfully. Dermatologists recommend regular self-examinations and annual physician examinations to detect changes in existing moles or blemishes.

Quick Skin Cancer Facts, Men Vs. Women DID YOU KNOW…

  • men are 2-3 times more likely to develop melanoma on the scalp and ears than women. men are twice as likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma on the left side of their faces. men have 1-1/2 times more squamous cell carcinomas of the nose than women.
    the chest, back, and shoulders are the most common sites for malignant melanoma in men. more men over the age of 50 will develop and die from malignant melanoma than women.
  • women develop three times as many melanomas on the legs as men do. more women than men under the age of 40 will develop skin cancer. women have a better overall cure rate for skin cancer than men.

Excerpted from Resident & Staff Physician, Vol. 36, No. 6; The Skin Cancer Foundation; Dermik Laboratories, Inc., American Academy of Dermatology