Understanding Each Type of Skin Cancer
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and around 9,500 Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. Although it’s more common in Non-Hispanic White people, skin cancers can affect everyone, regardless of skin color.
Since around 90% of skin cancers are caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays, it’s vital to understand more about this disease and how you can reduce the chances of it happening to you.
I’ve certainly exposed my body to too much sunlight and even used tanning beds when I was younger. Learning more about skin cancer has made me much more aware of the harm I’ve done and made me determined to clean up my act in the future!
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer can happen anywhere on your skin and occurs when cells in the outer skin layer, the epidermis, grow out of control. Sometimes they grow very slowly over years, and sometimes they multiply rapidly. The two main types of skin cancer are non-melanoma and melanoma, with melanoma being the more dangerous type.
What are the four types of skin cancer?
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common non-melanoma skin cancer and accounts for 75% of all skin cancers. Basal cells form the deepest layer of the epidermis, which is the upper layer of the skin.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) used to be known as a rodent ulcer and is usually found in areas of the body exposed to the sun’s UV rays; for example, the head, face, arms, shoulders, neck, and ears.
BCC often looks like red, scaly patches on the skin or a sore which doesn’t heal. It can appear as a pink or white lump that grows slowly, with a translucent appearance. It can bleed or get crusty as it gets bigger.
Although basal cell carcinomas can spread, it is uncommon and extremely rare to die from this form of skin cancer.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common type of skin cancer, accounting for around 20% of diagnoses. It starts in the outer layer of the skin, the epidermis, in keratinocyte cells.
Like basal cell skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma usually develops on areas of the skin exposed to the sun. It can also develop on parts of the skin that have suffered sunburn, scars, and ulcers.
SCC can present as a wart-like growth with an irregular outline, often bleeding and sometimes crusting over. It usually grows faster than a basal cell carcinoma and can also be a persistent open sore that doesn’t clear up after a few weeks.
It is highly unusual for squamous cell carcinoma to spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
Another type of skin cancer is actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis, which is a pre-cancer and if left untreated can turn into squamous cell carcinoma.
Actinic keratosis usually grows slowly and, like other types of skin cancer, it is usually found in areas of the body exposed to sunlight, including the face, arms, neck, and the back of hands.
The signs of actinic keratosis are rough, scaly patches, usually 10-20mm in size but can be smaller or larger than this. They can vary in color from pink to red or brown, and the skin may become very thick or may feel itchy.
Malignant melanoma is the fourth main type of skin cancer and starts in melanocyte cells within the basal layer of the skin. The purpose of melanocytes is to produce the pigment melanin, which is responsible for your skin, hair, and eye color. Melanin protects your skin from UV light from the sun, but too much exposure can cause sunburn, which is a sign of DNA damage. This damage can cause cancer cells to form when the normal cells grow uncontrollably.
Although caused by UV light, melanoma can also be found in areas of the body that aren’t exposed to the sun, such as inside the mouth and eyes. Melanoma skin cancer is more common in people with pale skin and freckles or red/blond hair. Family history is also a factor, with a greater chance of being diagnosed with melanoma if a close family member has also had one.
Melanomas usually develop from a mole that, over time, changes shape, color, or size. The changes may happen gradually, and the mole may be an irregular shape or itch/bleed.
Malignant melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, but if treated early, the 5-year survival rate is 99% if it hasn’t spread, according to the American Cancer Society. The most recent figures show a 68% 5-year survival rate for nearby spread and 30% if it has spread to distant organs.
How is Skin Cancer Treated?
The main treatment for all skin cancers is surgery to remove it, and if performed early, it is extremely successful. Surgery can include cutting out the tissue or shaving layers gradually to preserve as much normal skin as possible; cryosurgery, where the abnormal tissue is frozen and destroyed; and laser surgery which uses intense beams of light to remove a surface lesion.
Other treatments are only needed for more advanced skin cancer stages, including radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.
What Should You Do to Prevent Skin Cancer?
To prevent skin cancer, you should limit exposure to harmful UV from the sun. Use a high-factor sunscreen and cover up as much as possible. Avoid sunbeds, as these can cause the same damage as sunlight can.
Check your skin regularly for moles. Take photos on your phone if you’re worried about any areas of concern, so you can check whether they are growing or changing over time. Report any changes to your doctor, as many skin blemishes are nothing to worry about.
There may be a skin clinic near you that offers a mole mapping and screening service. A dermatologist will check whether a biopsy is needed and can arrange for a mole to be removed if required.