SKIN CANCER – The different types, and what to look for when examining your own skin

There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. With an estimated annual incidence in the United States of 900,000, the most common type of skin cancer (and all cancer, for that matter) is basal cell carcinoma (BCC). The lifetime risk of developing BCC for Caucasian people is about 35% in men and 25% in women. BCC is thought to arise from hair follicle stem cells that lie below the surface of the skin. It typically occurs in areas of chronic sun exposure and often has as a waxy or pearly appearance. Although BCC is usually slow growing and very rarely spreads (metastasizes) to other organs of the body, if left untreated, it can be quite disfiguring. Fortunately, the prognosis is excellent with proper therapy. Treatment typically involves either surgical excision or removal via electrodessication and curettage (a simple “scrape and burn” technique).

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the second most common type of skin cancer, afflicts about 200,000 Americans per year. It arises from the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin, and like BCC, tends to occur on sun-exposed areas. The rim of the ear and the lower lip are particularly vulnerable to development of SCC. These cancers often present as wart-like growth that crust and occasionally bleed. Although most are diagnosed early enough to successfully treat with surgical excision or electrodessication and curettage, untreated SCC can metastasize to distant tissues and can be fatal.

Malignant melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. Over 50,000 new cases are reported each year, and the incidence is rising more rapidly than any other type of cancer. The tumor originates in melanocytes, the cells that give skin, hair and eyes their pigment. Therefore, most melanomas are black or brown in color, but they can rarely be pink, purple, red or skin-colored. They tend to be flat, with irregularly-shaped borders. If diagnosed and surgically removed early, the cure rate approaches 100%. As the cancer advances, the risk of metastasis to other organs increases dramatically. Once this occurs, treatment is difficult, and many cases result in death.

The most important thing you can do to limit your risk of developing one of these types of skin cancer is to protect your skin from the sun by avoiding sun exposure from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, wearing sun protective clothing and using sunscreen routinely. It is also important to examine your skin monthly for any suspicious growths and new or changing moles. If you notice anything unusual, see your dermatologist for an evaluation. If you do in fact have a skin cancer, it will in all likelihood, be completely curable.

About the author
Doctor Robyn E. Glaesser is a practicing Dermatologist at Ironwood Dermatology located at 1735 E. Skyline Drive • Tucson, AZ 85718 • 520-618-1630 • Fax: 520-618-1636