Skin Cancer: What You Need to Know
Skin cancer is an often misunderstood disease. Because it affects the skin, rather than an organ deep within the body, many people mistakenly believe that it’s not as serious as other types of cancer. Part of my responsibility as president of the American College of Mohs Surgery is to help educate people and make them aware that skin cancer, if left untreated, can be devastating.
Part of the reason people may tend not to take skin cancer seriously is, when caught early, 99% of skin cancers are treatable and can be cured if handled properly. This fact should not give people permission to ignore abnormalities in their skin; it should instead emphasize the extreme importance of early detection.
So, let’s start at the beginning and highlight what everyone needs to know about skin cancer and treatment:
• What causes skin cancer? The primary cause is repeated exposure to ultraviolet light. People who allow themselves to be exposed to ultraviolet light – either outdoors or in tanning booths – are at a higher risk of developing cancer.
Tanning booths are creating increased concern in recent years. In fact, the World Health Organization has elevated tanning booths to its highest rating for cancer risk – the same rating it gives cigarettes. Additionally, people with suppressed immune systems, including solid organ transplant recipients, have a higher risk of developing skin cancer because their immune systems are not able to defend against the development of cancerous cells.
• What are the various types of skin cancer? Many types exist, but 3 of them are by far the most common, accounting for about 99% of cases. They are: melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.
o Melanoma is the most dangerous type. It causes more than 75% of all skin cancer related deaths. A melanoma is usually brown or black in color and looks like a mole. It can often be successfully treated if diagnosed early, but once it begins to spread to other parts of the body, the chances of curing melanoma are substantially reduced.
o Squamous cell carcinoma forms just below the surface of the skin. It most often develops in areas that have been exposed to sun. However, it can also occur in other areas of the body, such as the mucous membranes or genitals. In the beginning, it looks like a thick, rough, scaly patch of skin, but it can spread and become life threatening.
o Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It begins in basal cells, which are also located beneath the surface of the skin. It takes on a variety of appearances, such as a shiny bump, a reddish irritated area of skin, or a sore that never completely heals. It usually progresses more slowly than the other types, but early detection is also essential to prevent it from spreading.
• What do you need to watch for? While the symptoms described above are the most common signs, it can present itself in a variety of ways. The best rule is to always be aware of any new or unexpected change in your skin. Yearly skin checks with your dermatologist can provide a baseline for any questionable areas that may change over time. If you develop a new growth or skin irritation that doesn’t heal, consult with a dermatologist as soon as possible.
Yes, skin cancer is serious business, but when diagnosed early it can usually be cured. One of the main reasons for this is the successful development of a highly effective treatment known as Mohs micrographic surgery. Mohs is an extremely precise surgical technique that can remove cancerous cells from the skin without harming the surrounding healthy tissue.
Mohs micrographic surgery can effectively treat all types of skin cancer. Therefore, if you see a change in your skin and suspect that something’s not right, consult with your dermatologist immediately. If treatment is necessary, seek out a fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon who is a member of the American College of Mohs Surgery.