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Skin Cancer (Dermatology)

Skin Cancer Symptoms and Causes

Skin cancer is a malignant tumor that grows in the skin cells. In 2010 within the U.S. alone, more than 2 million Americans were diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer, and 68,130 were expected to be diagnosed with melanoma, according to the American Cancer Society.

There are three main types of skin cancer, including:

Basal cell carcinoma — Basal cell carcinoma accounts for approximately 80 percent of all skin cancers. This highly treatable skin cancer starts in the basal cell layer of the epidermis (the top layer of skin) and grows very slowly. Basal cell carcinoma usually appears as a small, shiny bump or nodule on the skin — mainly those areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, arms, hands and face. It commonly occurs among persons with light-colored eyes, hair, and fair complexion.

Squamous cell carcinoma — Squamous cell carcinoma, although more aggressive than basal cell carcinoma, is highly treatable. It accounts for about 20 percent of all skin cancer cases. Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as nodules or red, scaly patches of skin, and may be found on sun-exposed areas such as the face, ears, lips, and mouth. If left untreated, squamous cell carcinoma can spread to other parts of the body. This type of skin cancer is usually found in fair-skinned people.

Malignant melanoma — Malignant melanoma accounts for a small percentage of all skin cancer cases, but accounts for the most deaths stemming from skin cancer. Malignant melanoma starts in the melanocytes — cells that produce pigment in the skin. Malignant melanomas sometimes begin as an abnormal mole that then turns cancerous. This cancer may spread quickly. Malignant melanoma most often appears on fair-skinned men and women, but persons with all skin types may be affected.

Skin Cancer Symptoms

To prevent melanoma and other forms of skin cancer, it is important to examine your skin on a regular basis and become familiar with moles and other skin conditions, in order to better identify changes. Certain moles are at higher risk for changing into malignant melanoma. Moles that are present at birth (congenital nevi), and atypical moles (dyplastic nevi), have a greater chance of becoming malignant skin cancer. Recognizing changes in moles, by following this ABCD guide, is crucial in detecting malignant melanoma at its earliest stage. The warning signs for potential skin cancer are:

  • Asymmetry: When half of the mole does not match the other half
  • Border: When the border (edges) of the mole are ragged or irregular
  • Color: When the color of the mole varies throughout
  • Diameter: If the mole's diameter is larger than a pencil's eraser

Skin Cancer Causes

Skin cancer is more common in fair-skinned people — especially those with blond or red hair and light-colored eyes. Skin cancer is rare in children. However, no one is safe from skin cancer. Risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • Family history of melanoma
  • Personal history of melanoma
  • Sun exposure (the amount of time spent unprotected in the sun directly affects your risk of skin cancer)
  • Early childhood sunburns (research has shown that sunburns early in life increase a person's risk for skin cancer later in life)
  • Fair complexion
  • Light colored hair
  • Many freckles
  • Large ordinary moles
  • Dysplastic nevi
  • An immunosuppressive disorder
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, like arsenic
  • Radiation exposure
  • Smoking
  • HPV (human papilloma virus)

Skin Cancer Clinical Trials

The North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute offers a full array of clinical trials. The result of this research not only impacts survival, but also enhances the quality of life. For more information about clinical trials for Skin Cancer, visit Cancer Clinical Trials.

Make an appointment at the Cancer Institute

The North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute makes it easy for you to take the first steps in ensuring the best cancer care for yourself and your family. Learn more about the locations of our The embedded asset has been deleted:
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To learn more about the different types of cancer and treatment options, visit our Cancer Institute.