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Skin cancer diagnosis and treatment

Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. If left unchecked, these cancer cells can spread from the skin into other tissues and organs.

Basal cell carcinoma (cancer of the deep layers of the epidermis or outermost layer of skin) is the most common form. It rarely spreads or is life-threatening. Melanoma is less common, but more aggressive and dangerous.

Basal cell carcinoma develops from abnormal growth of the cells in the lowest layer of the epidermis and is the most common type of skin cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma is found in the upper layers of the skin.

Melanoma occurs in the melanocytes (cells that produce pigment) and is less common than squamous or basal cell carcinoma, but more dangerous. It is the leading cause of death from skin disease.

Common Causes and Risk Factors

  • Having light-colored skin, hair, and eyes
  • Having a family history of melanoma
  • Being older than 40
  • Sun exposure and sunburn


Skin cancers may have many different appearances. They can be small, shiny, waxy, scaly and rough, firm and red, crusty or bleeding, or have other features. Therefore, anything suspicious should be looked at by a physician.
Here are some features to look for:

  • Asymmetry: one half of the abnormal skin area is different than the other half
  • Borders: irregular borders
  • Color: varies from one area to another with shades of tan, brown, or black (sometimes white, red, blue)
  • Diameter: usually (but not always) larger than 6 mm in size (diameter of a pencil eraser)
  • Any skin growth that bleeds easily or will not heal


The treatment for skin cancer depends on the type, size, depth and location of the lesion. The most common treatment for skin cancer is surgery. For basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas and for melanomas in early stages, this will probably be performed in the doctor's office.

Cryosurgery uses extreme cold produced by liquid nitrogen to destroy abnormal tissue.

Electrosurgery uses high-frequency electric current to burn and cut tissue.

Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. It is injected through veins.

Targeted biological therapy uses substances that target or block the biological process involved in a particular kind of cancer. Targeted therapies often are combined with chemotherapy and can increase your survival rate. They can be given by mouth or through the veins.


Minimizing sun exposure is the best way to prevent skin damage, including many types of skin cancer:

  • Protect your skin from the sun when you can -- wear protective clothing such as hats, long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, or pants
  • Try to avoid exposure between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun is most intense.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Apply sunscreen at least one-half hour before sun exposure, and reapply frequently
  • Apply sunscreen during winter months as well