The bad news — skin cancer is the most common form of cancer with more than one million new cases each year. The good news — most of the cases are not life-threatening. Why the high rate of curability? Because there are 3 types of skin cancers. Two of which, basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, are highly curable if treated. Melanoma on the other hand is much more dangerous and can be fatal. What are the differences between these diseases? What do they have in common?
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Skin cancer is the formation of cancerous cells in the tissue of the skin. Basal cell carcinoma occurs when the cancer forms in the lower part of the epidermis. It is the most common of the 3 main types and affects mostly fair-skinned people. The cause? Sun exposure for the most part although a growth can form on an unexposed area of the body. In this case exposure to radiation, contact with arsenic, chronic inflammatory skin conditions, burns, scars, vaccinations, and possibly even tattoos could have something to do with a growth.
This type of cancer does not spread unless it is left untreated for a long period of time. Healthy cells are damaged, creating an ulcer-like growth. The first signs to look out for are large, pearly lumps, usually on the face, neck, or ears, although finding one on the chest or back is possible as well. The growth becomes raw after about six weeks, with a moist center, and a hard edge that may bleed. It will scab over, but never heal. Basal cell carcinoma can be treated, but it also can reoccur. This cancer may not be fatal, but it does cause damage to deeper layers of the skin and to bone.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the five warning signs to look out for are:
- An open sore that doesn’t heal.
- A reddish patch, which is usually irritable, but not always.
- A shiny bump — it may be pearly and pink, or darker brown or black.
- A pink growth with an elevated border and red, indented center.
- A scar-like marking that is white or yellow with poorly defined borders.
Basal cell carcinoma is officially diagnosed with a biopsy. Treatment options include removal through surgery, curettage and electrodesiccation (scraping and then heat to destroy remaining cancer), radiation, cryosurgery (tumor is frozen off with liquid nitrogen), laser surgery, photodynamic therapy (a photosensitizing agent is applied and then later a strong light is used to destroy cancer cells), and topical medications. Even with surgery, treatment can be done in the physician’s office with minimal discomfort.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
With squamous cell carcinoma a cancer forms in the flat cells on the surface of the skin. The damaged cells become a tumor or small lump, usually around the ears, on the face, near the lower lip, or even on the hands. As with basal cell, fair-skinned people are more at risk. Also, those over the age of fifty who work outside or live in a very sunny area where they enjoy lots of sun exposure are more likely to have this cancer. The direct cause is prolonged sun exposure, but the use of tanning beds, skin injuries, and exposure to radiation or chemicals are also risk factors.
Squamous cell carcinoma may resemble a wart, or a rough patch of skin that may bleed and never heals. Signs to look for include a scaly red patch with irregular borders, an elevated tumor with an indented center that may bleed, and an open sore that doesn’t go away. A physician will confirm the presence of the cancer with a simple biopsy.
It is important to recognize the symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma in order to have it treated right away. If detected at an early stage a growth can be treated and removed in the same ways that basal cell carcinoma is treated. If ignored, it can be much more difficult to treat, leading to possible scaring and disfigurement. Also, this type of skin cancer can potentially spread to other organs, in which case it could become fatal.
The third is the most dangerous of the skin cancers — malignant melanoma. In this case a tumor starts in the pigment-producing cells,
known as melanocytes. While this disease can be fatal, if treated while in the early stage it is completely curable. Left unnoticed, melanoma will spread, which is why it is more difficult to treat than the other 2 main types of skin cancer.
This cancer is caused by sun exposure, with fair-skinned people being most at risk. Other contributing factors include a family history of melanoma, moles (more moles, higher risk), serious sunburns in childhood, the use of tanning beds, and a weak immune system.
What are the warning signs of melanoma? According to the Skin Cancer Foundation you should look for:
- Moles that are asymmetrical
- A mole with an uneven border
- A mole or marking with more than one color, such as tan on one side and black on the other
- A mole/dark marking that is larger is diameter than a pencil eraser
- An evolving mole
If any of these signs are present see a doctor for proper diagnosis. They can examine your skin, take a biopsy, and they will also check to see if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Melanoma can be treated with a surgical incision that can be done in the doctor’s office. If the cancer has spread, surgery for a metastasized tumor may be necessary as well as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or gene therapy.
Preventing Skin Cancer
What the 3 types of skin cancers have in common is prevention. To prevent skin cancer protect your skin from sun exposure. Don’t use tanning beds. Wear sunblock and sun hats. Sit in the shade instead of laying in the sun. Also, eat a healthy, antioxidant-rich diet to help protect skin cells from damage.
Millions of people are affected by skin cancer. Through an awareness of warning signs, realities, and prevention methods, hopefully the number of cases and deaths will start reducing instead of climbing.
The Skin Cancer Foundation https://www.skincancer.org/basal-cell-carcinoma.html
National Cancer Institute https://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/skin
Balch, Phyllis A. " Prescription for Nutritional Healing.” Fourth Edition (Penguin Books, 2006).
photo by: Lin Pernille (CC/flickr) https://www.flickr.com/photos/linnybinnypix/793401147/sizes/m/in/photostream/
photo by: Erin (CC/flickr) https://www.flickr.com/photos/evilerin/3096163337/sizes/m/in/photostream/