How does skin cancer occur?
The most common and easily preventable cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light (sunlight or tanning beds). Genetic (hereditary) factors also play a part in the tendency to develop skin cancer.
How is skin cancer diagnosed?
Your health care provider diagnoses skin cancer by:
- looking at your skin thoroughly and completely
- asking about your symptoms and medical history and whether the affected area of skin has changed in any way
- performing a small biopsy (removing a small piece of tissue for microscopic analysis) or an excisional biopsy (removing the entire growth) for analysis if suspicious areas are present
How is skin cancer treated?
The treatment for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma is removal of the growth using one or more of the following procedures. The choice of treatment depends on the type of cancer and its size and position on the skin.
- Electrodessication and curettage (scrape and burn technique) — Scraping away of the cancer and then cauterizing (electrically burning) the surrounding area
- Excision — Cutting out the affected area and closing the wound with sutures (stitches)
- Performing Mohs micrographic surgery, a method of removing and analyzing layers of the growth and surrounding skin
- Freezing the affected area using liquid nitrogen
Skin cancer that is untreated or only partially treated may result in a more aggressive cancer.
What should I do if I notice something that looks strange or new on my skin?
See your health care provider at the first sign of anything suspicious forming on your skin. Skin cancer will not go away on its own, and, if left untreated, some types may spread to other areas of the body. Specifically, aggressive squamous cell carcinomas and thicker melanomas can spread to lymph nodes and internal organs where they may cause additional health problems.
How can I help prevent skin cancer?
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to exercise caution when you are in the sun. Most of us get our damaging ultraviolet exposure during our first 10-20 years of life, so teach your kids early! Here are a few specific tips from the American Academy of Dermatology and our practice:
- Seek shade when appropriate. Remember that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow appears to be shorter than you are, seek shade.
- Wear protective clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, when possible.
- Generously apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more to all exposed skin. “Broad-spectrum” provides protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Reapply approximately every one and one-half to two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating. If you are allergic to PABA, use PABA-free sunscreen lotions.
- Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand because they reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chances of sunburn. Remember that UV rays from the sun can penetrate clouds and cause sunburn or damage even on cloudy days.
- Avoid tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
If you feel you are at high risk because of previous or ongoing sun exposure, see your health care provider for a baseline skin exam. We also encourage patients to perform regular exams on themselves at home. You can learn how to perform a self- exam here.
If you have a history of sun-related skin changes, such as actinic (solar) keratosis, see your health care provider regularly on a schedule he or she recommends.
If you have previously had skin cancer, you are at a higher risk for developing skin cancer again. Skin cancers may recur in the same location. Your health care provider will want to examine you at three or six month intervals. Also, see your provider if you discover any new changes on your skin.
For more information about skin cancer, we recommend the following resources.