Unlike what most people think, skin cancer, like most other cancers, is fatal. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in many countries, including the United States. More than 5 million skin cancer cases come up each year. Over 3 million of these cases are found in the United States. In fact, one in five Americans may develop skin cancer in their lifetimes. In some instances, the individual affected may even be host to more than one type of skin cancer. The common risk factors for developing skin cancer are excessive exposure to harsh sunlight or use of tanning beds.
Fortunately, most cases of skin cancers do not result in death. Only melanoma, the deadliest of them, is estimated to take over 70,000 lives by the end of 2017. Skin cancers develop when cells in the skin begin to divide uncontrollably; thus, forming a tumor. This tumor immediately infects other cells and makes them cancerous too. Most skin cancers progress by growing deeper into the skin until they reach the lymphatic vessels and spread to other parts of the body. They are mostly caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or other sources such as tanning beds. Individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those who are HIV positive, or those with a lighter skin tone are at a greater risk of developing skin cancer.
There are three different types of skin cancer. If left untreated, all of these skin cancers can be fatal since they will eventually spread and form tumors in other organs in the body. Primary diagnosis is done by performing a biopsy.
Here are the three different types of skin cancers:
Basal Cell Carcinoma
This is the most common form of skin cancer. It arises from basal cells in the epidermis (small round cells that replace old skin cells with new ones). It forms lesions that look like open sores, red or pink patches, scars or growths. Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads to other parts of the body; however, they still require immediate treatment because the tumors cause disfigurement. Commonly, the area it affects is the region exposed to the sun such as the skin of shoulders, head, or neck.
Your risk of developing basal cell carcinoma may increase if you:
- Are frequently exposed to excessive sunlight.
- Are exposed to metal, arsenic, or radiation treatment for psoriasis.
This form of skin cancer can often be mistaken for psoriasis or eczema since it resembles them. It can be completely removed (without scars) using the appropriate treatment plan and medication.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
This type of skin cancer often manifests in one of two ways:
- A red, crusting or scaling lesion (Bowen’s disease).
- A whitish, rough and scaling patch of skin (actinic keratosis).
Squamous cell carcinoma lesions appear as thick, rough and scaly patches, growths, or open sores that bleed occasionally and show ulcerations. Though rare, some tumors may be shaped like a bulge or feel hard, which resembles another harmless skin ailment known as keratoacanthoma. Although squamous cell carcinoma has a slightly higher risk of spreading compared to basal cell carcinoma, it is still low in comparison to other cancers. Squamous cell carcinoma on the lips and large and deep lesions are more likely to spread. They can also be found around legs, bald scalp, arms, face, hands, and even in the rim of the ears. Similar to basal cell carcinoma, the risk of developing this cancer is increased by daily sun exposure for years or sustaining several severe sunburns. Not as deadly as a melanoma, this type can be cured by early treatment and identification.
Melanoma is the most serious form of cancer among all three types of skin cancers. Unlike the previous two types, melanomas are aggressive and readily spread to other parts of the body. Melanomas tend to look like moles, and sometimes may arise from normal moles. Unlike harmless moles that are round (or oval) and exhibit little or no change as time passes, melanoma lesions are shapeless, have blurred borders, are generally larger than normal moles, and tend to grow and change noticeably over time. Melanomas are mostly larger than 6mm and are rarely small in size.
Melanoma, like other skin cancers, is caused by excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning beds. The condition can be recurring. The color of the tumor can be pink, red, brown, black, or even skin-colored with hints of white, gray, or blue.
Early signs of melanoma can be identified by the ABCDE rule, while advanced growths can be recognized by the EFG rule (doctors or forums can elaborate).
Melanomas require immediate treatment because they readily spread and worsen if left untreated. Your risk of melanoma is high if you:
- Have a large quantity of moles (more than 5).
- Have unusual moles (asymmetrical).
- Have a family history of melanoma.
- Sustained several severe sunburns.
- Use tanning beds or spend extended periods in the sun.
How to Prevent Life-Threatening Skin Cancer
Spending lots of time under the sun or in tanning beds can greatly increase the risk of developing skin cancer. This is especially true if you have fair skin, have a relatively weak immune system, or live in a tropical or equatorial region.
Since skin cancer can usually be easily assessed by simply observing the affected area, it is often a bit less life-threatening than other forms of cancer. When skin cancer is treated immediately, it greatly improves the odds of successful treatment. Even aggressive melanomas have a high cure rate if detected and treated early.
Fortunately, we can spot suspicious moles or lesions, that are potentially early-stage skin cancers, and have them examined by a doctor. Skin cancers are easiest to treat when diagnosed at early stages. In most cases, when skin cancer is detected and treated early, it is highly curable with no risk of recurrence. Therefore, it is imperative to go for regular checkups if you feel there are some unexplained growths on your skin. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and shielding yourself from overexposure to harmful UV rays can prevent the development of skin cancer.