Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most prevalent of all cancers. It is estimated that more than one million Americans develop skin cancer every year.

Cancerous Skin Conditions

There are three forms of skin cancer:

Basal Cell Carcinoma: This skin cancer usually appears as a small, fleshy bump or nodule – most often on the head, neck, and hands. Occasionally, these cancers may appear on the trunk as red patches. Basal cell carcinomas seldom occur in African Americans, but they are most common skin cancers found in fair-skinned persons. People who have this cancer often have light-colored eyes, hair and complexions, and don't tan easily.

These tumors don't spread quickly. It can take many months or years for one to grow to a diameter of ½ inch. Untreated, the cancer will begin to bleed, crust over, heal and then the cycle repeats. Although this type of cancer rarely metastasizes (spread to other parts of the body), it can extend below the skin to the bone and cause considerable local damage.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma: This skin cancer may appear as a bump, or as a red scaly patch. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer found in fair-skinned persons. Typically, it is found on the rim of the ear, the face, the lips and mouth. It is rarely found in dark skinned persons. This cancer can develop into large masses. Unlike basal cell carcinoma, it can metastasize. When found early and treated properly, the cure rate by dermatologic surgery for both basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma is 95%.

Malignant Melanoma: It is projected that this most deadly of all skin cancers will develop on the skin of 44,000 Americans annually. Every year an estimated 7,300 Americans will die form melanoma. It is important to note that the death rate is at last declining because patients are seeking help earlier. Like the less aggressive skin cancers, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, melanoma is almost always curable when detected in its early stages.

cancerous skin conditionsbasal cell carcinomamalignant melanoma


Melanoma has its beginnings in melanocytes, the skin cells that produce the dark, protective pigment called melanin. It is melanin that makes the skin tan, acting as partial protection against the sun. Melanoma cells usually continue to produce melanin, which accounts for the cancers appearing in mixed shades of tan, brown and black. Melanoma can also be red, or white. Melanoma tends to spread making treatment essential.

Melanoma may suddenly appear without warning, but it may also begin in, or near a mole or another dark spot in the skin. It is important to know the location and appearance of the moles on our bodies so any change will be noticed. The most important step you can take is to have any changing mole examined by a dermatologist so that any early melanoma can be removed while still in the curable stage.

Excessive sun exposure, particularly sunburn, is the most important preventable cause of melanoma, especially among light-skinned individuals. Heredity also lays a part since a person has an increased chance of developing melanoma if a family member has had melanoma. Atypical moves (dyplastic nevi), which may run families, and a higher number of moles, serve as markers for people at higher risk for developing melanoma.

Dark brown or black skin is not a guarantee against melanoma. Dark-skinned people can develop melanoma, especially on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under the nails, or in the mouth. Warning signs of melanoma include: changes in the surface of a mole, scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a new bump, spread of pigment from the border into surrounding skin, and change in sensation including itchiness, tenderness of pain.

How Is Skin Cancer Treated?

If a skin biopsy reveals that an area of the skin is cancerous, the dermatologist has an array of surgical procedures to treat the cancer depending on the needs of the individual patient. Early detection and removal offer the best chance for a cure.

Dermatologists recommend that one helpful way to discover early skin cancers is to do periodic self-examinations. Get familiar with your skin and your own pattern of moles, freckles and 'beauty marks.' Watch for changes in the number, size, shape and color of pigmented areas. Contact your dermatologist if you notice any changes.

Preventing Skin Cancer

  • Periodic Self-Exams: Examine your body in front of a mirror, both back and front periodically.
  • Avoid the Sun: Avoid over exposure to the sun (including tanning)
  • Seek shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear light-colored tightly-woven protective clothing and wide brimmed hats.
  • Apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
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