Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the skin. It is the most common type of cancer. It is almost always cured when it is found early and treated. So it is important to see your doctor if you have changes in your skin.
Most skin cancers are the nonmelanoma type. There are two main types of nonmelanoma skin cancer:
There are other types of skin cancer that are not melanoma. But these are much less common. They include Merkel cell carcinoma and several kinds of sarcomas.
Nonmelanoma skin cancer is usually caused by too much sun. Using tanning beds or sunlamps too much can also cause it.
Skin cancer usually appears as a growth that changes in color, shape, or size. This can be a sore that does not heal or a change in a wart or a mole. These changes usually happen in areas that get the most sun—your head, neck, back, chest, or shoulders. The most common place for skin cancer is your nose.
Your doctor will use a biopsy to find out if you have skin cancer. This means taking a sample of the growth and sending it to a lab to see if it contains cancer cells.
If you have light skin that sunburns easily, you are more likely to get skin cancer.
Your risk is higher if you are male or if you are over 40. Your risk is higher if others in your family have had it or if you have had it before.
You may also be more likely to get it if you have been exposed often to strong X-rays, to certain chemicals (such as arsenic, coal tar, and creosote), or to radioactive substances (such as radium).
Your doctor will want to remove all of the cancer. There are several ways to do this. The most common way is to numb your skin so that it does not hurt, then cut out the cancer. You will be awake while this is done.
This surgery almost always cures nonmelanoma skin cancer.
After your treatment, you will need regular checkups because having skin cancer once means you are more likely to get it again.
You can prevent it by being careful in the sun. Stay out of the sun at midday, when the sun's rays are strongest. Wear sunscreen or other sun protection. Do not use tanning booths or sunlamps.
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|Skin Cancer: Protecting Your Skin|
Nonmelanoma skin cancer is usually caused by overexposure to the sun and its ultraviolet (UV) rays. Overexposure to UV rays can result from:
Other possible causes of skin cancer include repeated exposure to X-rays, certain chemicals (such as arsenic, coal tar, creosote), and radioactive substances (such as radium). Skin cancer may also be caused by ionizing radiation treatments for skin conditions such as psoriasis or acne.
Nonmelanoma skin cancer may appear as a change in the skin, such as a growth, an irritation or sore that does not heal, or a change in a wart or a mole.
Basal cell carcinoma usually affects the head, neck, back, chest, or shoulders. The nose is the most common site. Basal cell carcinoma occurs much more often than squamous cell carcinoma. There are several types of basal cell carcinoma, including nodular, superficial, and sclerosing (morpheaform). They look different but they all need the same treatment. Signs of basal cell carcinoma can vary depending on the type and may include skin changes such as a:
Squamous cell carcinoma usually affects the face, head, or neck. Signs of squamous cell carcinoma include any:
Nonmelanoma skin cancer usually develops slowly, invading and destroying nearby tissues. It may take months or years for basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas to develop. Because of this slow growth, skin cancer can often be detected and treated early in its development, increasing the chance for a cure.
Basal cell carcinoma can invade normal skin tissue and damage deeper tissues, such as muscles and bones, and affect the appearance of the skin. Basal cell carcinoma very rarely spreads (metastasizes) to other parts of the body.
After you have one basal cell carcinoma, you are more likely to have another one develop in a new place. If basal cell carcinoma comes back at the same place (recurs), it may grow faster and cause more tissue damage.
Squamous cell carcinoma is more invasive than basal cell and can spread from the scalp, ears, eyelid, nose, or lip to other areas of the body. But it rarely spreads (metastasizes) to other parts of the body.
Sometimes a squamous cell carcinoma starts as actinic keratosis, which are small rough spots that grow in sun-damaged skin. Actinic keratosis is not a skin cancer, but it may lead to skin cancer.
Risk factors for nonmelanoma skin cancer include:
Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas can occur in people with dark skin. But these cancers are much more common in people with light skin.
The risk of squamous cell carcinoma is higher in people who have weakened immune systems. This includes people who have had organ transplants and take medicines to prevent rejection of the new organ.
Call your doctor if you have an irritated or irregular skin growth. This includes any:
Be sure to show your doctor any skin growths that concern you so that they can be evaluated and treated if necessary.
Watchful waiting, or surveillance, is a period of time during which you and your doctor observe your symptoms or condition without using medical treatment. Watchful waiting is not appropriate if you suspect that you have nonmelanoma skin cancer. The earlier skin cancer is detected, the sooner it can be effectively treated.
Health professionals who can examine and diagnose a suspicious skin growth include:
Doctors who can remove a large skin growth or one in a noticeable area while minimizing scars that may result from surgery include:
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Nonmelanoma skin cancer is diagnosed by:
Take steps to detect skin cancer early:
The goals of treatment for nonmelanoma skin cancer are to:
Treatment for nonmelanoma skin cancer depends on the size and location of the cancer, whether it is basal cell or squamous cell, and your age and overall health. The type of treatment will also depend on whether you have had skin cancer at that place before and whether the cancer is in a place where you have had radiation therapy. Because skin cancer usually grows slowly, it often can be detected early and successfully treated.
The most common treatment is surgery to destroy or remove the entire skin growth, including a margin of cancer-free tissue around the growth. Most surgical treatments are very effective, with high cure rates.
The main treatment options are:
Each of these treatments has advantages and disadvantages. Discuss your options with your doctor.
Follow-up treatment for nonmelanoma skin cancer includes skin self-exams and regular exams by your doctor. These exams are extremely important to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back (recurrence).
Almost half of people who have a nonmelanoma skin cancer will develop another one within 5 years.1 Your doctor may schedule you for exams as often as every 3 to 6 months for the first 2 years and yearly after that, especially for squamous cell carcinoma.
Surgery is usually very effective for both basal and squamous cell carcinoma. But in rare cases, the cancer can spread to other parts of your body. This is more likely with squamous cell cancer than with basal cell.
For more information about specific skin cancer treatment, see the following:
Most nonmelanoma skin cancer can be prevented by protecting your skin from the sun and ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
Children and babies should be protected from the sun. You should start protecting your child from the sun when he or she is a baby. Because children and teens spend a lot of time outdoors playing, they get most of their lifetime sun exposure in their first 18 years.
Some people believe that a tan may protect them against a sunburn and skin damage. But the amount of sun exposure needed to get a tan can by itself cause skin damage.
Home treatment after removal of a skin cancer includes regular use of skin protection measures to prevent a return (recurrence) of nonmelanoma skin cancer and regular exams to watch for suspicious skin changes.
Perform a skin self-exam once a month.
Certain medicines, such as some antibiotics or diuretics, can make your skin more sensitive to the sun's rays. Ask your doctor about this potential side effect of your medicines, and take extra precautions if necessary.
Medicines are rarely used to treat nonmelanoma skin cancer. Surgery is the most common and the most effective treatment. But when surgery is not possible, your doctor may suggest medicines. Medicines may also be used when a skin cancer is too large for surgery or when new skin cancers keep appearing.
Medicines that may be used to treat nonmelanoma skin cancer include:
People treated with medicines will need to have regular follow-up visits with their doctors to make sure the skin cancer is gone.
Chemotherapy may be used to destroy cancer cells in the small number of people who have basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma that has spread (metastasized) to other organs in the body, though metastasis is rare.
Medicines such as 5-FU and imiquimod may cause your skin to be sore. Your skin may turn red, swell, itch, or break out in a rash. Your skin may also be sensitive to sunlight. If your skin turns too red or raw, your doctor may stop the treatment.
How well medicines work for nonmelanoma skin cancer is not fully known. Studies are currently being done on the following medicines to find out their effectiveness.
Surgery is the most common and most successful method of treating nonmelanoma skin cancer. The goals of surgery are to:
The main types of surgery for nonmelanoma skin cancer include:
Each type of treatment has advantages and disadvantages. Discuss your options with your doctor.
Radiation therapy for nonmelanoma skin cancer may be recommended for people who may not be able to have surgery because of the location of the skin cancer. Radiation therapy may also be a treatment choice if age or other health conditions make surgery too risky. Radiation therapy is most often used for older adults. It may lead to other skin cancers in younger people as they age.
Other treatments for people who cannot have surgery or radiation include:
Lasers, such as the carbon dioxide laser, may be used to treat superficial basal cell carcinomas and actinic keratoses. Lasers use an intense beam of light as a scalpel to remove skin cancer.
|American Academy of Dermatology|
|P.O. Box 4014|
|Schaumburg, IL 60168|
|Phone:||1-866-503-SKIN (1-866-503-7546) toll-free
The American Academy of Dermatology provides information about the care of skin, hair, and nails. You can locate a dermatologist in your area by using their "Find a Dermatologist" tool at www.aad.org/find-a-derm.
|American Cancer Society (ACS)|
The American Cancer Society (ACS) conducts educational programs and offers many services to people with cancer and to their families. Staff at the toll-free numbers have information about services and activities in local areas and can provide referrals to local ACS divisions.
|National Cancer Institute (NCI)|
|6116 Executive Boulevard|
|Bethesda, MD 20892-8322|
|Web Address:||www.cancer.gov (or https://cissecure.nci.nih.gov/livehelp/welcome.asp# for live help online)|
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a U.S. government agency that provides up-to-date information about the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer. NCI also offers supportive care to people who have cancer and to their families. NCI information is also available to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. NCI provides the latest information about clinical trials. The Cancer Information Service, a service of NCI, has trained staff members available to answer questions and send free publications. Spanish-speaking staff members are also available.
|Skin Cancer Foundation|
|149 Madison Avenue|
|New York, NY 10016|
The Skin Cancer Foundation is committed to educating the public and the medical profession about skin cancer, its prevention, early detection, and effective treatment. This Web site has information on skin cancer, prevention, "Ask the Expert," anti-aging, early detection, sunscreen, recommended products, and sun protective clothing. There are links to find a doctor and also to opportunities to get involved.
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2010). Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, Version 1. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/nmsc.pdf.
Other Works Consulted
- Duncan KO, et al. (2008). Actinic keratosis section of Epithelial precancerous lesions. In K Wolff et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 7th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1007–1015. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.
- Hall JC (2010). Tumors of the skin. In JC Hall, BJ Hall, eds., Sauer’s Manual of Skin Diseases, 10th ed., pp. 280–304. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Halpern AC, Myskowski PL (2009). Malignant cutaneous tumors. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 2, chap. 10. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
- Kose O, et al. (2008). Comparison of the efficacy and tolerability of 3% diclofenac sodium gel and 5% imiquimod cream in the treatment of actinic keratosis. Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 19(3): 159–163.
- Marks VJ, Hanson NW (2010). Non-melanoma skin cancer. In JC Hall, BJ Hall, eds., Sauer’s Manual of Skin Diseases, 10th ed., pp. 305–311. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- National Cancer Institute (2010). Skin Cancer PDQ: Treatment – Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/skin/HealthProfessional.
- National Cancer Institute (2010). Skin Cancer PDQ: Treatment – Patient Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/skin/patient.
- Ormerod A, et al. (2010). Basal cell carcinoma, search date December 2009. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
- Spencer JM (2010). Basal cell carcinoma. In MG Lebwohl et al., eds., Treatment of Skin Disease: Comprehensive Therapeutic Strategies, 3rd ed., pp. 78–82. Edinburgh: Saunders Elsevier.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2003). Counseling to prevent skin cancer: Recommendations and rationale. MMWR, 52(RR-15): 13–17.
- Waldorf HA (2010). Squamous cell carcinoma. In MG Lebwohl et al., eds., Treatment of Skin Disease: Comprehensive Therapeutic Strategies, 3rd ed., pp. 702–706. Edinburgh: Saunders Elsevier.
- Wolff K, Johnson RA (2009). Precancerous lesions and cutaneous carcinomas. In Fitzpatrick's Color Atlas and Synopsis of Clinical Dermatology, 6th ed., pp. 274–299. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Randall D. Burr, MD - Dermatology|
|Last Revised||October 1, 2010|
Last Revised: October 1, 2010
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