Each year, more than two million people are diagnosed with skin cancer, more than the amount of all other cancer diagnoses combined. And while our awareness and knowledge about skin cancer continues to grow, so does the number of diagnosed cases. However, skin cancer is both preventable and treatable.
Like other forms of cancer, skin cancer means that a cell has mutated, or become abnormal. The mutated cells continue to replicate, causing cancerous cysts, tumors, masses, or deformities on the skin. Sometimes spots or masses may be present but they aren’t cancerous, referred to as benign. If they are cancerous, they are called malignant.
There are different types of skin cancer, depending on how the cells mutate. The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. In general, melanoma is a high-risk cancer, while basal and squamous cell carcinomas are less serious.
- Basal cell carcinoma: This is the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for close to 80 percent of malignant skin cancer cases. Basal cell carcinomas rarely spread to other areas (also known as metastasizing), but they may cause tissue damage and pain. This type of cancer may come in the form of an open wound, red growth, or shiny bumps and scars. Basal cell carcinoma cases most often appear on parts of your skin that have been frequently exposed to the sun, including your face, neck, scalp, and shoulders or back.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: More than a half million people are diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma each year in the United States, making it the second most common form of skin cancer. It is similar to basal cell carcinoma, as it is linked to sun exposure and frequently occurs on the face, neck, scalp, and limbs. Most cases, when treated early, don’t spread. However, a small percentage of squamous cell carcinomas may spread to other tissues and organs.
- Melanoma: This is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and while it is the least common it is estimated that melanoma will affect 1 in 27 men and 1 in 40 women in their lifetime (Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2019. CA Cancer J Clin. 2019; doi: 10.3322/caac.21551). There are many factors contributing to melanoma, including high altitude, fair skin, significant sun exposure, tanning beds and genetics. Melanoma masses are commonly associated with moles, as they resemble a mole or may even arise from an existing mole. They are generally dark brown or black in color, though occasionally may be white, pink, or even blue or purple.
You can take an active role in protecting your skin and preventing skin cancer. First, when possible try to stay in the shade during peak sun hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. When you are in the sun, reapply sunscreen regularly throughout the day, especially if you will be in water where it can wash off.
In some cases, you may want to wear clothing that covers your arms and legs, and protective accessories like hats and sunglasses to block UVA and UVB rays. Also, avoid indoor tanning as it can increase your risk of developing skin cancer.