What Everyone Should Know About Skin Cancer

When we hear the word “cancer,” skin cancer is usually not the first thing to come to mind – but it’s actually the most common type of cancer in humans. The three main types of skin cancer are each named after the type of cell that becomes cancerous – basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Here’s what to know about the three main types of skin cancer and what to look for when checking your skin:

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

What to know: Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of cancer (up to 3/4 of all skin cancers), originating from cells in the basal layer of the skin. BCCs are typically found on areas with the greatest sun exposure - head, neck and arms – but can be found in unexposed areas as well. Basal cell carcinomas typically do not metastasize (spread to distant locations in the body), but they can grow into the surrounding tissue causing damage. BCC can be treated and cured with surgery.

What to look for: Basal cell carcinomas will typically look like a flesh-colored or pearly bump or patch of skin. Sometimes, the bump will have tiny blood vessels called telangiectasias. The cancer can also appear flat or crusted. BCCs can bleed easily and may show up as a “pimple” that doesn’t heal or a spot that bleeds after shaving.

Basal cell carcinoma with telangiectasias
Basal cell carcinoma with telangiectasias

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

What to know: Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer and comes from cells in the squamous layer, which is closer to the surface of the skin than the basal layer. SCC is also usually found on areas that see the most sun – the ears, face, neck, arms, chest. Like basal cell carcinomas, they can cause local damage and disfigurement. They are more likely to metastasize than BCC but the chances are still very low. SCC can be treated and cured with surgery.

SCC can develop from a precancerous growth called actinic keratosis, which is caused by sun exposure. Actinic keratosis looks like a rough, scaly patch of skin. If you find these scaly lesions, it is possible to treat them and prevent development of cancer.

What to look for: Squamous cell carcinomas are usually red or brown bumps or patches on the skin, which often have a rough or scaly surface. SCCs may have a raised border and a crusted or ulcerated center. Like BCCs, they may also bleed if bumped or scraped.

Squamous cell carcinoma with ulcerated center
Squamous cell carcinoma with ulcerated center
Actinic keratosis, can become squamous cell carcinoma
Actinic keratosis, can become squamous cell carcinoma

Melanoma

What to know: Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and results from melanocytes, the cells that pigment the skin and form moles. Melanoma is the most concerning type of skin cancer because it has the potential to spread to other locations – most commonly the liver, lungs, bones, and brain. Melanoma can develop from an existing mole that becomes abnormal or “dysplastic.” It can also appear as a new lesion on the skin without a preexisting mole. Melanoma comes in a few different varieties and can affect people of all skin types. Melanomas can be anywhere on the skin, including the bottom of the feet, under nails, and on the back, so it’s important to use a mirror when checking your skin.

What to look for: Finding a melanoma early is the best way to prevent death, so it’s valuable to know how to spot one. An easy way to remember the warning signs of melanoma is “ABCDE.”

· A- Asymmetry: Noncancerous (benign) moles will usually be symmetrical, meaning if you drew a line down the middle, both sides of the mole would look the same. A lesion with an irregular shape has a greater risk of being cancerous.

· B- Border: Benign moles should have smooth borders that are clearly defined. An irregular or jagged border to a lesion can be a warning sign of melanoma.

· C- Color: Benign moles should be one shade of brown. If there are multiple different colors or shades of one color, this is more concerning for melanoma.

· D- Diameter: Diameter refers to how big the lesion is at its largest width. Melanomas can be larger than 6 millimeters (about ¼ of an inch) – however, small spots can be melanoma as well.

· E- Evolution: This is the most important letter to remember. If a mole is changing in size or color, this should be evaluated by a dermatologist immediately.

Melanoma with asymmetry, irregular border, and multiple colors
Melanoma with asymmetry, irregular border, and multiple colors

Knowing the basics of what to look for when checking your own can be life-saving. If you have a concerning lesion, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist to evaluate it. Just as important as knowing how to identify a cancer is protecting yourself from developing one in the first place. Because sun exposure is the main risk factor for developing skin cancer, sun protection is hugely important in preventing it. Don’t underestimate the value of sunscreen, hats, and shade for keeping your skin healthy!

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