What You Should Know About Skin Cancer

What You Should Know About Skin Cancer

Summertime always means hot weather, fun in the sun, swimming in a pool or at the beach, and many other outside activities. It should also mean a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to block harmful ultraviolet radiation coming from the sun. This radiation has been scientifically linked to increases in certain types of skin cancers.

If you suspect that a dark spot or the changing colors of some moles on your body may be early signs of skin cancer, here are a number of ways to identify, evaluate, and treat skin cancer.

What are the three major types of skin cancer?

There are three major types of skin cancers: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). The latter two skin cancers are grouped together as non-melanoma skin cancers.

What are the four main types of melanoma?

Superficial spreading melanoma (70% of all melanoma skin cancers) usually grows outward (radial growth) and spreads across the skin. It can also grow down into the skin (vertical growth). Often flat and thin, it has an uneven border and varies in color and may have different shades of red, blue, brown, black, grey and white. Sometimes this type of melanoma starts as a mole already on the trunk, arms or legs. It often happens on the back of men and on the legs of women.

Nodular melanoma (15-20% of all melanoma skin cancers) spreads quickly and grows down into the skin. A raised growth that may be shaped like a mushroom, it is usually black but sometimes can be red, pink or the same color as your skin. Nodular melanoma usually develops on the chest, back or face. It can be found on areas of skin not exposed to the sun.

Most often developing in older people, lentigo maligna melanoma (10-15% of all melanoma skin cancers) usually appears as a large, flat tan or brown patch with an uneven border. It tends to get darker as it grows and has many shades of brown or black. It usually grows outward across the surface of the skin for many years before it starts to grow down into the skin. Lentigo maligna melanoma usually develops on areas of skin that are regularly exposed to the sun without protection, such as the face, ears and arms.

Acral lentiginous melanoma (less than 5% of all melanoma skin cancers) is most common in people with dark skin, such as those from African, Asian and Hispanic ancestries. It is not related to being exposed to the sun. Acral lentiginous melanoma usually grows outward across the surface of the skin for a long time before it starts to grow down into the skin. It usually develops on the soles of the feet, on the palms of the hands, or under the nails, which makes it difficult to diagnose.

What are the warning signs a dark spot could be skin cancer?

Basal cell carcinoma usually occurs in sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your neck or face. It can appear as

  • A pearly or waxy bump
  • A flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion
  • A bleeding or scabbing sore that heals and returns

Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as:

  • A firm, red nodule
  • A flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface

Melanoma signs include:

  • A large brownish spot with darker speckles
  • A mole that changes in color, size or feel or that bleeds
  • A small lesion with an irregular border and portions that appear red, pink, white, blue or blue-black
  • A painful lesion that itches or burns
  • Dark lesions on your palms, soles, fingertips or toes, or on mucous membranes lining your mouth, nose, vagina or anus

How do you determine the stage of melanoma?

When diagnosing melanoma, healthcare providers will try to determine if the melanoma has spread and how far. This is called staging, which describes how much cancer is in the body. The stage determines how serious the cancer is and how best to treat it.

The stages of melanomas range from 0 through 4, with some stages split further by using capital letters. The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV, means cancer has spread more. Although each person’s cancer experience is unique, cancers with similar stages tend to have a similar outlook and are often treated in much the same way.

How do you treat skin cancer?

Surgery to remove the tumor is the primary way to treat all stages of melanoma. An incision is made to remove both the melanoma and some of the nearby tumor. Skin grafting may be used to replace the removed skin.

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses medications to slow/stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing.

Radiation therapy is a treatment that uses x-rays or other types of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing.

Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer.

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs to attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do.