May 17, 2010
Christopher Robb, M.D.
Spring Hill Dermatology
Benjamin Hayes, M.D.
Understanding Skin Cancer
Skin cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up the skin. Normally, skin cells grow and divide to form new cells. Every day skin cells grow old and die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the skin does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a growth or tumor.
Benign growths are not cancer:
Malignant growths are cancer:
Types of Skin Cancer
Skin cancers are named for the type of cells that become cancerous. The two most common types of skin cancer are basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer. These cancers usually form on the head, face, neck, hands and arms. These areas are exposed to the sun. But skin cancer can occur anywhere.
Basal cell skin cancer grows slowly. It usually occurs on areas of the skin that have been in the sun. It is most common on the face. Basal cell cancer rarely spreads to other parts of the body.
Squamous cell skin cancer also occurs on parts of the skin that have been in the sun. But it also may be in places that are not in the sun. Squamous cell cancer sometimes spreads to lymph nodes and organs inside the body. If skin cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new growth has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary growth.
Doctors cannot explain why one person develops skin cancer and another does not. However, we do know that skin cancer is not contagious. You cannot "catch" it from another person. Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop skin cancer.
Studies have found the following risk factors for skin cancer:
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect yourself from the sun. Also, protect children from an early age. Doctors suggest that people of all ages limit their time in the sun and avoid other sources of UV radiation:
If you have a change on the skin, the physician must determine whether it is due to cancer or to some other cause. Your doctor removes all or part of the area that does not look normal. The sample goes to a lab where a pathologist checks the sample under a microscope.
There are four common types of skin biopsies:
Sometimes all of the cancer is removed during the biopsy. In such cases, no more treatment is needed. If you do need more treatment, your doctor will describe your options. Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type and stage of the disease, the size and place of the growth, and your general health and medical history. In most cases, the aim of treatment is to remove or destroy the cancer completely.
It often helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what the doctor says, you may take notes or ask whether you may use a tape recorder. You may also want to have a family member or friend with you when you talk to the doctor.
Your doctor or nurse may suggest that you do a regular skin self-exam to check for skin cancer, including melanoma. The best time to do this exam is after a shower or bath. You should check your skin in a room with plenty of light. You should use a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror. It's best to begin by learning where your birthmarks, moles and other marks are and their usual look and feel.
Check for anything new:
By checking your skin regularly, you will learn what is normal for you. It may be helpful to record the dates of your skin exams and to write notes about the way your skin looks. If your doctor has taken photos of your skin, you can compare your skin to the photos to help check for changes. If you find anything unusual, see your doctor.