What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is primarily caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sun exposure or from indoor tanning, though some people can develop skin can...

Table of Contents
powered by healthline

Average Ratings

What Is Skin Cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Skin cancer is an abnormal growth of skin cells. It generally develops in areas that are exposed to the sun, but it can form in places that don’t normally receive sun exposure.

The two main categories of skin cancers are defined by the cells that are involved.  They are melanomas, and basal and squamous cell skin cancers. Melanomas develop from the cells that make the brown pigment which gives skin its color (melanocytes). Benign moles can be formed by melanocytes. They can appear anywhere but are more likely to be found on the chest and back in men and the legs in women. Melanomas can be cured if found early. However, left untreated they are likely to spread to other parts of the body.

Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are the most common form of skin cancer. Both are found on areas like the neck and head, the body parts which get the most sun. They are less likely to spread and become life-threatening. However, left untreated, they can grow larger and possibly spread.

Skin Cancer Causes

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it’s unclear what exactly causes basal and squamous cell skin cancers. They may be caused by unprotected and repeated exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and from manmade sources like tanning beds. That’s because UV rays damage the DNA inside our skin cells.

According to the ACS, it’s also somewhat unclear what exactly causes melanoma. While most moles don’t turn into melanoma, researchers are unsure why some do. Like basal and squamous cell skin cancer, melanoma can be caused by UV rays. However, some melanomas can appear in body parts not exposed to sunlight.

Both types of skin cancer occur when your skin cells’ DNA has errors (or mutations). According to the Mayo Clinic, these errors cause skin cells to grow uncontrollably and form a mass of cancer cells.

Skin Cancer Risk Factors

Risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • family history of skin cancer (you or other relatives have had skin cancers)
  • irregular, large, or multiple moles
  • history of severe sunburns
  • skin that is pale, freckled, sunburns easily, or doesn’t tan at all or little
  • natural blond or red hair
  • blue or green eyes
  • excessive or unprotected exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning lamps or booths
  • exposure to certain substances such as arsenic compounds, radium, pitch, or creosote
  • live or vacation in sunny, warm, or high-altitude climates
  • precancerous skin growths
  • weak immune system (such as those with HIV/AIDS)
  • radiation exposure (such as treatment for acne or eczema)

Types of Doctors Who Treat Skin Cancer

If you have any suspicious skin issues, see your general practitioner or family doctor. According to the American Cancer Society, you may then assemble a treatment team of various doctors who can help address different issues of your skin cancer, depending on your specific diagnosis.

You may have a dermatologist, a doctor who treats skin disease. A surgical oncologist or oncologic surgeon treats cancer with surgery. A radiation oncologist treats cancer with radiation therapy. A medical oncologist treats cancer with targeted therapy, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, or other medicines. Other healthcare professionals you may have involved in your care include:

  • nurse practitioners
  • nurses
  • physician assistants
  • social workers
  • nutrition specialists

Skin Cancer Diagnosis and Tests

Your doctor may diagnose your skin cancer by examining your skin to see if anything resembles skin cancer. The doctor will look at the shape, size, and color, feel for any questionable area, and note if there is scaling, bleeding, or dry patches.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, your doctor may also take a biopsy. This is a safe, quick, and easy procedure. A small piece of a suspicious-looking area is removed and tested at a lab. That can determine what type of skin cancer you may have. If you are diagnosed with skin cancer, you may need more tests to determine how far along the skin cancer is.

Skin Cancer Treatments

Treatment will vary depending on factors like the type, size, aggressiveness, and location of the skin cancer. After weighing up these factors you may have one or more of the following treatments:

  • the initial biopsy, which removes the whole growth
  • Mohs surgery, where the skin growth is removed layer by layer; each layer is examined under a microscope until no abnormal cells remain
  • freezing, where the skin cancer is frozen with liquid nitrogen; dead tissue falls off when it thaws
  • excisional surgery, where the cancer tissue and some surrounding healthy skin are excised (cut out)
  • photodynamic therapy, which uses a special laser light and drugs to help destroy skin cancer cells
  • chemotherapy, where cancer cells are killed or destroyed with drugs that are applied topically, swallowed, injected with shots or infused with an IV
  • radiation, which helps kills cancer cells with repeated exposure to high-powered energy beams
  • biological therapy, which helps kill cancer cells by stimulating the immune system with biological treatments
  • curettage and electrodessication, where most of the growth is removed and then the doctor uses a curette (a long, spoon-shaped blade) to scrape away the cancer cells; any remaining cancer cells are burned by an electric needle
  • cryotherapy, where the cancer is frozen, causing the cancer to “fall” off
  • immunotherapy, where your immune system helps fight the cancer  when a cream is applied to your skin

What Are Complications of Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer can be stopped if caught and treated early. However, complications can include:

  • recurrence (where the cancer comes back)
  • an increased risk for other types of skin cancer
  • cancer can spread to other tissues
  • cancer can spread to muscles, nerves, or organs in the body

According to the American Cancer Society, a recurrence of basal and squamous cell skin cancers will most likely happen in the first five years after treatment. Melanoma can return years after it was initially treated. If you’ve had skin cancer, you’re at high risk for developing another melanoma in another location. Recurrence treatment options for basal and squamous cell skin cancers are based on your health, the location of the cancer, size of the cancer, and your prior skin cancer treatment history. Recurrence treatments options for melanoma include the cancer’s location, your overall health, and your prior treatment history.

How to Prevent Skin Cancer

Help prevent skin cancer by avoiding intense sunlight for long periods of time. Avoid direct sun exposure when the sun is strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to the Mayo Clinic. Stay in the shade during those times. Avoid tanning beds and sun lamps, which are sources of UV light.

Protect your skin. Wear sunglasses year-round that offer 100 percent UVB and UVA protection, and wear a wide-brimmed hat when in the sun. The American Cancer Society suggests that you stick with dark colors and tightly woven and dry fabrics. Apply lip balm and sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Reapply every 2 hours and apply at least 30 minutes before outdoor activities.

And always regularly examine your skin. Tell your doctor if you notice any changes.

Written by: Stacey Feintuch
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD, MBA
Published: Dec 22, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
Top of page
General Drug Tools
General Drug Tools view all tools
Tools for
Healthy Living
Tools for Healthy Living view all tools
Search Tools
Search Tools view all tools
Insurance Plan Tools
Insurance Plan Tools view all tools