What Is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. It occurs when damage to skin cells—most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds—causes skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. If left untreated, cancerous tumors can spread to other parts of the body including vital organs. While skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, it is also the easiest of all cancers to cure, but it must be diagnosed and treated early.
Types of Skin Cancer
Some skin cancers are melanomas; there are also non-melanoma skin cancers. It is important to know which type of skin cancer you have and to treat it appropriately.
Melanoma is the most aggressive type of skin cancer; you can read more about melanoma types, symptoms, and treatments here.
Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which are common types of skin cancer you can read about here.
Additional Skin Cancers include merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP), and sweat gland tumors, which occur less frequently with unique symptoms and treatments that you can read about here.
Symptoms of skin cancer are changes in the skin, such asymmetry, borders, color, diameter, evolving— as described below. It is important to make an appointment to see a doctor immediately if you observe any of the following symptoms.
- Asymmetry: If one half of a mole does not match the other half, it is asymmetric, and it could be a sign of melanoma.
- Borders: The borders of an early melanoma tend to be irregular, notched, ragged, or undefined.
- Color: A mole that has different shades of tan, brown, black, and sometimes white, pink, red, or blue could be a warning sign.
- Diameter: Melanomas tend to have diameters larger than a quarter of an inch or six millimeters, about the same size or larger than the size of the pink eraser at the end of a yellow pencil.
- Evolving: Any change or evolution in color, size, or shape of a mole or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching, or crusting could be a sign of melanoma.
An example of a skin condition that displays many of the above symptoms is a dysplastic nevus, which is anunusual mole. It does not have the symmetric round or oval shape of a common mole. It is normally larger (wider than a pencil eraser), contains a mixture of colors from pink or red to tan or dark brown, and may contain an irregular edge. Some are flat, but may be slightly scaly, or have a rough surface. People with many dysplastic nevi have an increased chance of developing melanoma, but most dysplastic nevi do not turn into melanoma and remain stable over the course of time.
Causes and Risk Factors
Skin cancers affect people of all colors and races. It is common in light-skinned people who sunburn easily and have a higher risk of developing skin cancer on the face, neck, and arms exposed to the sun. Also, multiple moles, overexposure to X-rays, or compromised immune system are risk factors.
Research shows that indoor tanning beds and sun lamps increase the risk for skin cancers, including, but not exclusively, melanoma. Additionally, risk factors of skin cancers include a personal or family history of skin cancer, certain inherited DNA mutations, or multiple atypical moles.
Screening and Diagnosis
Skin Cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The best defense against developing skin cancer is adopting prevention habits such as applying sunscreen year round, wearing sun protective clothing, and avoiding tanning beds. You can learn how to spot skin cancer at its earliest, most treatable stage by observing changes to your skin and getting regular dermatological examinations.
Monthly Head-to-Toe Skin Self-Exam
Each month, examine your skin, including your back, head, and between your toes. You may need the help of a loved one to check all skin growths: moles, birthmarks, or any brown spots or any changes like the symptoms described above. The Skin Cancer Foundation provides step-by-step instructions.
Yearly Skin Exam with a Physician
It is essential to have at least an annual full-body skin check with a dermatologist. Professional skin exams are as important as annual physicals and dental checkups. If you have skin cancer risks, then you should have more frequent exams. You should discuss the appropriate schedule of skin examinations with your doctor.
When skin cancer is caught early and you receive treatment, your chances of being cured increases. At the Mount Sinai Health System, we offer various treatment options for patients with skin cancer. Depending on your diagnosis, your physician will offer the following treatments. Our Treatment page offers more information to learn more about a specific treatment to your condition.