Skin CancerCraig Kraffert, MD
Skin cancer is the most prevalent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. More than 2 million Americans develop basal or squamous cell carcinoma (the two common forms of skin cancer) each year. Melanoma, a more serious form of skin cancer, is diagnosed in more than 75,000 Americans annually.
Dermatologists consider cumulative overexposure to ultraviolet light from sun to be the principal cause of skin cancer, especially when exposure results in repeated sunburns. Other less important risk factors include repeated medical and industrial x-ray exposure, scarring from diseases or burns, occupational or domestic exposure to such compounds as coal and arsenic, and family history. Below is a list of some of the most common types of skin cancer.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
This skin cancer usually appears as a small, fleshy bump on the face, neck, ears, or scalp. Occasionally, these cancers appear on the torso, usually as flat, pink patches. Basal cell carcinoma seldom occurs on dark-skinned patients. People who develop basal cell cancer generally sunburn easily, and frequently have light hair and eyes, or fair complexions.
Basal cell carcinoma does not usually grow quickly. It may take several months or years for a tumor to reach one-half inch in diameter. Untreated, this cancer typically bleeds, crusts, heals over, and then repeats the cycle. Although basal cell carcinoma rarely metastasizes (spreads to other parts of the body), it can extend below the skin to underlying structures and cause considerable local damage.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common skin cancer in Caucasians, may appear as pink crusty bumps or as red, scaly patches. It is often found on the ears, face, or lips. It occurs occasionally in darker-skinned people. This cancer may develop into large tumors, and unlike basal cell carcinoma, it can metastasize.
Squamous cell carcinoma severity varies considerably. Some cases may actually resolve spontaneously and most are fairly easily treated. Others may resist treatment, however, and a minority of cases can be quite aggressive. Because of these aggressive and treatment-resistant cases, squamous cell carcinoma is generally considered somewhat more dangerous than basal cell carcinoma.
An estimated 2,300 deaths result from non-melanoma skin cancer each year. The cure rate for both basal and squamous cell carcinoma is well above 95 percent when detected early and definitively treated.
Melanoma, one of the most virulent forms of skin cancer, usually presents as an odd mole-like, brown spot or growth. Melanomas often change relatively quickly in size or color, become crusty or itchy, or bleed. Although all Caucasian and Hispanic individuals are at some risk of developing melanoma, sun exposure, the number of moles on the skin, age, and genetics greatly affect overall risk. Those of East Asian or African ancestry have very little melanoma risk.
Of the nearly 12,000 skin cancer related deaths in the United States each year, almost 9,000 are as a result of melanoma. Fortunately, however, the melanoma death rate is currently declining, perhaps as a result of better-informed patients becoming proactive and seeking help earlier. Melanoma is usually curable when diagnosed in its early stages and treated with best practices.