Definition and Overview

Skin cancer, also commonly referred to in the medical community as melanoma, is caused by the development of abnormal cells due to exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or use of tanning beds. These trigger uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, as well as mutation, leading to genetic defects. When skin cells multiply at a substantially faster rate, they form malignant tumor or mass of cancer cells.

Skin cancer is currently one of the most common types of cancer with one in five Americans diagnosed with the disease every year. Although it affects millions of people, it’s recognized as the easiest to cure among cancers, as long it is diagnosed and treated early. When left untreated, this cancer can spread to other organs and can lead to disfigurement and even death.

Causes

The main cause of skin cancer is direct exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and to the lights used in tanning beds. Other less common causes include exposure to certain chemicals and X-ray and scars from burns. These cause the development of three types of skin cancers: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma. While the first two are considered the less serious types, melanoma causes 75% of all skin cancer deaths all over the world.

Key Symptoms

Skin cancer typically develops on a sun-exposed skin particularly on the face, scalp, arms, chest, neck, and ears. However, there are cases where it also develops in palms, toenails, and even genital area.

Basal cell carcinoma appears as a flat, pearly, or waxy bump that looks like a brown or flesh-colored lesion. Squamous cell carcinoma is a firm red nodule or a flat lesion with crusted and scaly surface. Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, appears as a large brownish spot or a mole with darker speckles.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Patients who notice any unusual changes on their skin are advised to consult a general practitioner immediately. If a skin cancer is suspected, patients are referred to a dermatologist, a licensed medical practitioner specializing in skin diseases and conditions. Dry patches, as well as growths and moles, will be thoroughly examined using a device called demoscope. The dermatologist may also get a skin sample for biopsy before any diagnosis is made.

If skin cancer is confirmed, the dermatologist will formulate the best treatment plan. In doing so, several factors will be considered, including the type of skin cancer, the location of the cancer on the body, the stage and aggressiveness of the cancer, and the patient’s overall health. Small cancers are treated through biopsy and removal of the entire growth. Serious cases of skin cancer may require advance and aggressive treatment plans.

In cases where the cancer has not spread, the most common treatment option is a surgical procedure that may be any of the following:

  • Excision – In this procedure, the dermatologist surgically cuts the skin affected by cancer, as well as a small amount of normal-looking skin, also referred to as surgical margin.

  • Curettage and electrodesiccation – This surgery, which involves the process of scarring the cancer using a curette, is recommended for squamous cell as well as small basal cell skin cancers. During the procedure, the cancer cells are cauterized using electric needles.

  • Mohs Surgery – This is a layer-by-layer approach that is performed only by dermatologists who have received medical training in Mohs surgery. The procedure begins with the surgeon removing the top layer of the skin that is affected by cancer. Once done, the dermatologist examines the remaining skin to look for cancer cells. New layers will be removed until no cancer cells are left. The success rate of this surgery is substantially higher when compared to other treatments.

For cases where skin cancer is detected early, surgery may not be required. Alternate treatments include immunotherapy, cryosurgery (freezing the skin cancer), skin-applied chemotherapy, photodynamic therapy, and radiation therapy. Each treatment is designed to destroy the damaged cells and to promote the growth of new skin in the affected area.

Despite being the most common type of cancer, skin cancer can be cured particularly if it is diagnosed early. However, patients who had skin cancer before are at higher risk of getting another skin cancer in the future. Thus, regular check up with a licensed dermatologist is highly recommended.

On the other hand, if skin cancer is left untreated, it may grow deeply and affect other parts of the body. When skin cancer has spread, bone and muscle removal may be necessary in order for the patient to survive.

Resources:

  • The Skin Cancer foundation http://www.skincancer.org/
  • http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/
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