Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. and in the world. It's estimated that about half of all fair-complected people who live to 65 will develop at least one type of skin cancer. While cancer of the skin often appears in the head and neck areas, it can affect any part of the body. Unlike age spots, skin cancer isn't purely cosmetic in nature. Even benign (non-cancerous) skin abnormalities may pose certain health risks if not treated.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Characterized by small, reddish-brown raised bumps, basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It's a slow-growing form to cancer that's often seen on parts of the body exposed to sunlight.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
As is the case with basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma is type of skin cancer that's rarely life-threatening. While basal cell carcinoma is usually relegated to the affected area, squamous cell carcinoma can spread to the lymph nodes and other tissues. Risk factors include radiation and chemical exposure.
Stemming from melanocyte cells in the skin, melanoma is a harmful form of skin cancer that can spread beyond where it originally develops. This is the type of cancer that often appears as a mole, which is why it's often advised to have suspicious moles checked. Less common forms of skin cancer include:
- Kaposi sarcoma: A rare form of cancer affecting blood vessels in the skin that may appear as red or purple patches on skin.
- Merkel cell carcinoma: Usually found on the head, neck, or trunk of the body, this type of cancer may appear as shiny nodules beneath the skin or under hair follicles.
- Sebaceous gland carcinoma: This type of cancer develops in the skin's oil glands. It commonly appears on eyelids as hard, painless nodules.
Signs and Symptoms
An unusual skin growth or sore that's not healing is a possible sign of cancer. Depending on the type of cancer, visual signs may include waxy bumps, raised bumps or moles, lesions with irregular shapes or borders, large brown spots, and existing growths that change color or shape. Some patients may also notice bleeding and itching. However, not all types of skin cancer are painful.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosis of any type of skin cancer typically involves a visual examination and the analysis of a sample (biopsy) to determine if the suspicious tissue is cancer. With superficial skin cancers like basal cell carcinoma, removal of the growth in the affected area may be all that's necessary. With other types of skin cancer, additional testing is often recommended to determine if other tissues are affected. Treatment will depend on the cancer's stage, with Stage I being less serious and Stage IV indicating advanced cancer. Possible treatment options include:
- Immunotherapy with topical creams
- Chemotherapy to destroy affected skin cells
- Radiation therapy
- Surgical excision or Mohs surgery to remove abnormal tissues and nearby tissues that may be affected
Using a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher year-round, avoiding direct sun exposure as much as possible, and avoiding tanning beds are some of the steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer. If you do notice any unusual pigmentation or skin irritations, an ear, nose, and throat doctor specializing in head and neck cancer can make an assessment and recommend an appropriate treatment.