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Skin Cancer 101: Signs, Types and Treatments

May 8, 2023

What is Skin Cancer?

During May, Skin Cancer Awareness Month, organizations and individuals worldwide unite to spread the word about the risks of skin cancer and the importance of early detection and prevention. With more than 9,500 cases diagnosed daily, skin cancer is the most prevalent malignancy in the United States. 

Skin cancer occurs when the cells in the skin grow uncontrollably and form a mass of abnormal cells, known as a tumor. Basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, Merkel cell carcinoma, and melanoma are the four primary types of skin cancer. Numerous risk factors, such as genetics, sun exposure, and certain lifestyle choices, can contribute to skin cancer formation. 


What are the Types of Skin Cancer?

Basal Cell Carcinoma 

80% of all cases of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, making it the most common type of skin cancer. Typically, it appears on the face, neck, and arms, as these are the most prevalent parts of the body that are exposed to the sun. 

A pink, glossy patch of skin that may bleed readily or a small, raised lump are the typical symptoms of basal cell carcinoma. On the surface, there might be tiny blood vessels that give it a glossy or waxy appearance. It may occasionally turn into an ulcer or a scab. 

While basal cell carcinoma typically grows slowly and rarely spreads to other parts of the body, if left untreated, it can harm and disfigure the individual. Surgery, radiation therapy, and topical medicines are all used to treat basal cell carcinoma. The most effective course of action is determined by the tumor’s size, depth, and location, as well as the patient’s overall health and preferences.  

Squamous Cell Carcinoma 

With about 16% of all cases, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most prevalent type of skin cancer. Additionally, it frequently appears on exposed skin, such as the face, neck, and arms. However, it can also appear on other parts of the body, such as the lips and genitals. 

Squamous cell carcinoma typically presents as a red, flat patch of skin that itches or bleeds and may be covered in scales or scabbing. It could have a dip in the middle or have a hard, wart-like surface. It might occasionally turn into an ulcer or a sore that does not heal. 

Squamous cell carcinoma can results in harm and disfigurement if left untreated, despite the fact that it typically grows slowly and seldom spreads to other regions of the body. Surgery, radiation therapy, and topical medicines are all used to treat squamous cell carcinoma. The most effective course of action is determined by the tumor’s size, depth, and location, as well as the patient’s overall health and preferences. 


Melanocytes, the skin’s pigment-producing cells, are where melanoma arises. Despite being less common than basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, it is more aggressive, and, if left untreated, can spread to other body parts. 

Melanoma typically presents as a dark or unusual-appearing mole or freckle that evolves over time in terms of size, form, or color. Additionally, it may have an uneven border, various coloring, and an asymmetrical shape. Melanoma can appear anywhere on the body, but the back, legs, arms, and face are the most common areas where it is discovered. 

Melanoma can develop in places that are not typically exposed to the sun, such as the palms, soles of the feet, and under the nails. Exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays is the main cause of melanoma. Fair skin, a history of sunburns, melanoma in the family, and a large amount of mole are risk factors for melanoma. 

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

The most uncommon, but very aggressive, skin cancer known as Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) arises in the Merkel cells, located in the skin’s deepest layer. People with weakened immune systems and older adults are more likely to develop MCC. 

Typically, a cyst or a pimple will look similar to a painless firm, pink or red bump that is Merkel cell carcinoma. MCC could develop quickly, hemorrhage, or develop an ulcer. Merkel cell carcinoma frequently appears on skin that is frequently exposed to the sun such as the head, neck, and arms. However, it can also develop on other parts of the body. 

Merkel cell carcinoma is a dangerous condition that can swiftly spread to the organs and lymph nodes, among other areas of the body. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery are available treatment options for MCC. The most effective course of action is determined by the tumor’s size, location, and stage as well as the patient’s preferences and general health. 


Signs and Symptoms of Skin Cancer 

Depending on the type of cancer, there can be a wide range of skin cancer signs and symptoms. However, some typical symptoms and signs to watch out for include: 

  • A New or Changing Mole: This could manifest as an existing mole that changes in size, form, or color, or as a brand-new mole with an odd appearance. 
  • A Sore That Does Not Heal: This could be a wound that does not heal or a scab that forms and bleeds repeatedly. 
  • A Spot or Patch that is Red, Scaly, or Crusty: This could be a red, pink, or brown spot or a rough or scaly piece of skin. 
  • A Lump or Bump: This could be a firm or hard-to-the-touch elevated lump or bump. 
  • Itchy or Painful Skin: This could indicate an abnormal lesion or growth on the skin. 


Skin Cancer Diagnoses 

To get a skin cancer diagnosis, you should see a dermatologist. You can schedule an appointment at SkinDC to get a skin exam here. During your visit, one of our board-certified dermatologists will conduct a thorough skin examination, looking for any suspicious growths or lesions. 

One of our dermatologists may conduct a skin biopsy if they notice a questionable growth. This procedure entails taking a small sample of the tissue for laboratory testing. The results of the biopsy will aid in determining whether or not the tumor is malignant. At SkinDC, we use DermTech to collect samples of the tissue for analysis.

DermTech is a biotechnology company that specializes in non-invasive, genomic-based skin cancer diagnostic testing. DermTech’s Pigmented Lesion Assay (PLA) collects RNA from a suspicious skin lesion using a tiny adhesive patch. Following the collection, the RNA is examined to look for genetic changes linked to melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. 

The DermTech PLA is intended to be a minimally invasive replacement for conventional skin biopsies, which can be uncomfortable and cause scarring. The PLA is painless and can be completed in just a few minutes during your medical visit at SkinDC. The test has been shown to have a high level of accuracy in diagnosing melanoma and other types of skin cancer. It can also identify benign growths, eliminating the need for pointless biopsies. 

With more accuracy and less invasiveness than conventional skin biopsies, DermTech’s genomic-based assays have the potential to transform the early detection and diagnosis of skin cancer.  


Skin Cancer Treatments 

The type and stage of cancer, the patient’s general health, and personal preferences all influence the choice of treatment for skin cancer. There are numerous therapeutic options available. Skin cancer treatments that are often used include: 

  • Surgery: The most frequent form of treatment for skin cancer is surgery, which entails removing the malignant tumor and a margin of healthy skin. Different surgical procedures, such as excision, Mohs surgery, curettage, and electrodesiccation may be used, depending on the size and location of the cancer. 
  • Radiation Therapy: High-energy radiation beams are used in radiation treatment to destroy cancer cells. Certain types of skin cancer may be treated with this procedure either alone or in conjunction with surgery. 
  • Topical Therapy: To treat precancerous or cancerous tumors, topical therapy is applying a cream or lotion directly to the skin. Lquimod, fluorouracil, and ingenol mebutate are frequently used topical medications. 
  • Photodynamic Therapy: A light-activated medicine is applied to the skin during photodynamic treatment (PDT), which is subsequently triggered by a particular light source to kill cancer cells. 
  • Immunotherapy: In immunotherapy, medications are used to activate the immune system’s attack on and eliminate cancer cells. Skin cancer that has spread or progressed is often treated with this method.


What is Mohs Surgery? 

Mohs surgery, also known as Mohs micrographic surgery, is a specialized surgical technique used to treat skin cancer. The procedure is named after Dr. Frederick Mohs, who developed the technique in the 1930s. Mohs surgery is a very accurate and efficient way to remove skin cancer, especially from sensitive areas like the face, eyelids, nose, lips, and ears where tissue preservation is crucial.

During Mohs surgery, the surgeon removed the visible portion of the cancerous growth and a thin layer of surrounding tissue. After that, the tissue is examined under a microscope to see if any malignant cells are still there. Until no cancer cells are found, the surgeon will remove another lay of tissues if cancerous cells are still present. The benefit of Mohs surgery is that it enables the exact removal of malignant tissue while maintaining the greatest amount of healthy tissue. This is important for both functional and cosmetic reasons. 

Usually done under local anesthetic as an outpatient procedure. Mohs surgery might take several hours to complete, depending on the size and location of the malignant tumor. Depending on the size and location of the wound, it may be stitched closed, or left to heal naturally after the treatment. 

Although Mohs surgery is very effective, it is not suitable for all forms of skin cancer. Your dermatologist or surgeon will determine if Mohs surgery is the best treatment option for your situation. 


Common Misconceptions 

There are a number of widespread myths regarding skin cancer that can lead to a lack of understanding and awareness of this disease. Some of the most typical misconceptions include: 

  • Only fair-skinned people get skin cancer: Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of their skin color, however, it is true those with fair skin are more likely to develop it. 
  • Skin cancer is not a serious disease: Skin cancer can be a dangerous and even fatal condition, especially if it is not found and treated at an early stage. 
  • Skin cancer only affects older people: Although skin cancer risk increases with age, it can still strike anyone, even children and young adults. 
  • Skin cancer only affects people who spend a lot of time in the sun: Although exposure to UV radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer, there are other factors that can contribute. These factors include genetics and a family history of skin cancer. 
  • Skin cancer always looks like a mole: Skin cancer may show up as a sore that will not heal, a new growth, or a change in the appearance of a mole or spot on the skin that already exists. 
  • Skin cancer is not preventable: Despite the fact that it is not always possible to completely prevent skin cancer there are many steps that people can take to reduce their risk. These include wearing protective clothing and sunscreen, avoiding the sun during peak hours, and performing routine self-exams to check for any changes in the skin.


Prevention and Early Detection 

Prevention and early detection are key in the fight against skin cancer. Here are some tips for preventing skin cancer and detecting it early: 

  • Protect Your Skin from the Sun: The sun’s UV rays can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. Protect your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. Protect your skin by wearing protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, and hats, and applying broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Shop SkinDC’s favorite SPF products here
  • Avoid Tanning Beds: Tanning beds use UV radiation which can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, indoor tanning can increase the risk of developing the two most common types of skin cancer – squamous cell carcinoma by 58% and basal cell carcinoma by 24%. Using tanning beds before the age of 20 can increase your chances of developing melanoma by 47% and the risk increases with each use. 
  • Perform Regular Skin Self-Exams: Check your skin regularly for any changes in moles, freckles, or other spots on your skin. Look for any new or changing growths, sores that don’t heal, or patches of skin that are red and scaly. Need help with performing a self skin-exam? The American Academy of Dermatology has a great guide here! 
  • See a Dermatologist for Regular Skin Checks: One of SkinDC’s board-certified dermatologists can help you identify any suspicious growth and recommend the appropriate treatment. We recommend coming in for a skin check annually. Learn how to prepare for your skin exam at SkinDC here
  • Know Your Risk Factors: Factors such as a family history of skin cancer, a history of excessive sun exposure, and having fair skin can increase your risk of skin cancer. Be aware of your risk factors and take steps to protect your skin accordingly.
  • Seek Medical Attention: If you notice any changes in your skin, such as a new growth or mole, or a sore that does not heal, see a dermatologist as soon as possible.