Skin Cancer and the Importance of Screening

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, affecting one in five Americans at some moment during their lifetime.  Because some forms of skin cancer can be deadly, prevention and early detection are important.

Types of Skin Cancer

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer, while squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common form of skin cancer. Together, BCCs and SCCs are referred to as nonmelanoma skin cancers. Although they can occur anywhere on the body, they most commonly develop on the face, ears, neck and hands. BCCs typically appear as pearly bumps that may bleed, while SCCs tend to be rough, red scaly areas or sores that do not fully heal. BCCs tend to grow slowly but can locally invade the skin if untreated. SCCs can be more aggressive and serious. If SCCs are untreated, they may eventually spread to the lymph nodes and other internal organs. Among nomelanoma skin cancers, about 80% are BCC and 20% are SCC.

Melanoma is one of the most serious forms of skin cancer and can be deadly. It can develop without warning or it can grow from an existing mole. Melanomas are most common on the back, chest, abdomen, legs, head and neck, though they can occur anywhere on the body. Signs to watch for in detection of melanoma include new moles, moles that are noticeably changing, moles that are asymmetric in shape and color and dark moles that are irregular in shape. Such moles should be evaluated by a dermatologist. Melanoma cancer rates have more than doubled since 1982 and it is the most common form of cancer for young adults age 25-29.

Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

  • Risk factors for skin cancer include:
  • Exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning devices
  • Older age for BCC and SCC
  • The development of one or more pre-cancers called actinic keratosis on chronically sun exposed areas for SCC
  • Melanoma risk factors include individuals with
    • red or blond hair, blue or green eyes
    • more than 50 moles, large moles or unusual moles
    • a family history of melanoma
    • a history of other cancers such as breast or thyroid cancer

Prevention and Early Detection

Ways to prevent skin cancer include avoiding excessive direct sun exposure, reducing the number of sunburns, seeking shade, covering up and regular use of sunscreen. Looking for new or changing spots on your skin and if indicated, regular visits to your dermatologist can help with early detection. When discovered early, melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers are treatable and curable.