Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. While most types of skin cancer are treatable, early diagnosis is important. If you notice an abnormal skin growth, schedule an appointment at one of Silver Falls Dermatology’s many locations in Oregon and Washington.
Types of Skin Cancer
The three most common types of skin cancer include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type overall. This type of cancer typically presents as a flesh-colored growth, small pearly bump or pink patch of skin. They are most common among those with fair skin and usually found on the head, neck or arms. Basal cell carcinoma is typically easy to treat, especially with early diagnosis.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common. Squamous cell carcinoma typically looks like a firm red bump, scaly patch of skin or sore that does not heal or reopens frequently. Squamous cell carcinoma is most often found on the ears, face, neck, arms, chest or back, but can be found in any area of the body. Like basal cell carcinoma, it is highly treatable with early diagnosis.
Melanoma is less serious than basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma, but it is considered the most serious. Melanoma typically looks like an irregular mole. These growths can evolve and grow over time.
There are other, less common types of skin cancer. These include:
- Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma
- Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans
- Merkel cell carcinoma
- Sebaceous carcinoma
You may experience a number of types of noncancerous tumors of the skin. These growths are considered abnormal, but will not metastasize to other areas of the body. For this reason, noncancerous tumors are typically not life-threatening and are often not a serious health concern. Some types of noncancerous skin tumors include:
- Keratinous and pilar cysts
- Seborrheic keratoses
- Skin tags
What Causes Skin Cancer?
The underlying cause of skin cancer is a mutation in the skin cells’ DNA. These cause the cells to grow abnormally or out of control, forming a cancerous tumor or mass. These mutations may be caused by a number of factors.
Sun damage is a common cause of skin cancer. Over time, ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or indoor tanning can cause damage to the skin cells. For this reason, it is important to wear SPF daily and seek shade as much as possible. This is also why those with fair skin, a history of sunburns or those who live in sunny climates are more susceptible to skin cancer.
Several factors may increase your risk for skin cancer in addition to your family history or skin tone. Those with a weakened immune system, including those taking immunosuppressant drugs or those with HIV/AIDS, are at an increased risk. Exposure to toxic substances can also increase your likelihood of developing skin cancer.
Skin Cancer Biopsy
A skin cancer diagnosis can be made through a biopsy. This involves removing a small amount of tissue which can be evaluated in a lab to make an accurate diagnosis. A biopsy will determine the type and stage of cancer you have and help inform the best treatment option. In some cases, the biopsy will remove all cancer cells and no further treatment will be necessary.
Skin Cancer Treatment Options
There are several treatment options that your provider may recommend for skin cancer.
Among the most common treatments for skin cancer is an excisional or Mohs surgery to remove all cancerous cells. In an excisional surgery, a scalpel or similar surgical tool is used to cut away the cancerous growth and a small margin of healthy skin cells to ensure that all cancer is removed.
In Mohs surgery, the cancerous growth is removed layer-by-layer and examined under a microscope. This helps to ensure that all abnormal cells are completely removed while sparing as much healthy skin as possible. Mohs surgery is particularly beneficial for larger or recurring skin cancer.
Cryotherapy, or freezing, may also be used to treat skin cancer. This involves freezing the unhealthy cells using liquid nitrogen, causing them to fall away.
Curettage and electrodesiccation is another option. In this procedure, a circular blade called a curet is used to scrape away layers of cancerous cells. An electric needle is then used to destroy any remaining cells.
In advanced cases of skin cancer, radiation, chemotherapy or biological therapy may also be necessary. This is less common.
At what age does skin cancer typically occur?
Skin cancer can occur at any age. No matter your age, your risk of skin cancer markedly increases if you’ve had sunburns.
How are skin cancers treated?
Surgery to cut out skin cancers is the most common type of treatment.
Can a dermatologist tell if you have skin cancer?
A dermatologist will examine your skin and decide if there are spots that are suspicious for skin cancer. If there are one or more suspicious spots, the dermatologist will often recommend a biopsy, which involves cutting off a piece of skin and sending it to the laboratory to check for cancer. It’s important to have your skin checked by a dermatologist so that they can catch any cancer early—it’s better to put out a match than a forest fire!
Can skin cancer go away by itself?
Skin cancer will not go away by itself, although often a cancer will appear to improve on the surface while its roots are growing underneath the skin. If untreated, many skin cancers are capable of metastasizing and spreading like dandelion seeds to the body’s important organs. This can ultimately be fatal.
Can a dry patch of skin be cancer?
Skin cancer can sometimes develop from actinic keratoses, which are pre-cancerous lesions Actinic keratoses often look like dry, flaky, white patches of skin. It’s always best to have a dermatologist check an area of concern if you’re worried about it.
Can skin cancer kill you?
Most skin cancers are detected early and have a very high cure rate. However, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly 20 people die each day from melanoma in the U.S. (https://www.aad.org/media/stats-skin-cancer).
Can a skin cancer look like a pimple?
Skin cancer can take many forms, but it most commonly looks like a discolored spot or mole on the skin or a spot that is changing in some way (itching, hurting, burning or bleeding). However, most skin cancers have no symptoms and many of them occur on places such as the back that are hard for patients to see. Make sure to check with a dermatologist if you’re concerned about a spot and to examine areas that are difficult for you to examine.
Can skin cancer show up suddenly?
Yes – melanoma is one type of skin cancer that’s known for appearing suddenly and without warning. Melanomas often do not itch, hurt, burn, nor bleed, making it hard for people to recognize they have a potentially deadly cancer growing on them. If you notice a spot on your skin that seems concerning, see a dermatologist right away.
Can you have skin cancer for years and not know?
Some skin cancers can be undetected and grow in hard-to-see areas of the body like the scalp or between the toes. Some skin cancers grow so slowly that people do not detect changes that are occurring. Skin cancer will generally grow and have the chance of spreading beyond the skin the longer it goes untreated, so make sure to see a dermatologist yearly for a skin check.
Does skin cancer show up in blood work?
Skin cancer is almost always detected by a provider directly looking at the skin or taking a biopsy. Blood work is rarely helpful in diagnosing skin cancer.