What is Skin Cancer?

Cancer is tissue composed of abnormal cells that grow at an uncontrolled and unpredictable rate. As cancerous, or malignant, tissue grows, it invades and destroys the surrounding normal tissue.

The most common types of skin cancer are:

Basal Cell Carcinoma — commonly appears as a pearly white, pink or red patch or bump that may bleed or scab repeatedly, and may be more visible when the skin is stretched tight with the fingers.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma — typically a firm reddish bump with a crusty surface, may be tender.
Malignant Melanoma — flat patch or bump ranging in color from light brown to black, often displaying multiple colors (including pink or red) within a single melanoma lesion.Tends to gradually enlarge, may bleed or scab. The borders of a melanoma are typically irregular or scalloped rather than smooth.

These cancers generally originate in the skin, but if neglected, can invade and destroy muscle, bone and other structures. Metastasis is the migration and growth of cancer cells in new locations beyond the site of the original growth or lesion. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma usually do not metastasize. Malignant melanoma, on the other hand, may metastasize and can be life-threatening if not treated early. Unlike other forms of cancer that develop in internal body organs, skin cancer can be seen without the aid of sophisticated medical equipment. This allows patients and their dermatologist to identify the problem and seek treatment early while the cancer is still small and easily cured.

How Can I Prevent Skin Cancer?

Skin cancers, as well as aging and wrinkling of the skin, are usually the result of damage to the skin cells by sun exposure. You can help prevent further damage to your skin by avoiding outdoor activities during peak sunlight hours (10:00 am to 2:00 pm), and by avoiding tanning booths and sun lamps. When in the sun, wear a hat and other protective clothing, and a sunscreen that contains avobenzone (Parsol 1789), mexoryl, or zincoxide with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30, on all exposed skin.

What Are the Signs of Skin Cancer?

You should consult your dermatologist immediately if you notice any of the following:

  • A new growth on an adult that persists for more than 4-6 weeks
  • An existing lesion that grows, changes color or becomes translucent or pearly
  • A mole or birthmark that changes in size, shape, border, color or texture
  • Any skin spot, growth or sore that continues to itch, hurt, erode, scab or bleed, refuses to heal for several weeks, or heals and later reopens.

What is a Biopsy?

A biopsy is the removal of tissue from the living body for microscopic examination for purposes of diagnosis. There are many benign (non-malignant) skin growths or lesions that may display some of the signs of skin cancer listed above, but that are obviously not cancer when seen under the microscope. In many cases, a biopsy is the only way to distinguish between a cancer and an innocent mole or wart. Usually, only a small portion of a skin growth is removed upon biopsy, so additional surgery is required to remove the remainder if it proves to be cancerous.

How is Skin Cancer Treated?

Techniques for the treatment of skin cancer include:

Curettage and Electrodesiccation — Scraping away cancerous tissue with a surgical instrument, then using an electrical unit to stop the bleeding.
Surgical Excision — Cutting out cancerous tissue.
Cryotherapy — Freezing the affected area with liquid nitrogen and removing it.
Radiation Therapy — Use of X-Ray radiation.
Mohs Micrographic Surgery — A comparatively recent form of skin cancer surgery that is becoming increasingly popular.