Skin cancer is any type of abnormal cell growth within the skin. The majority of these cancers are classified as the nonmelanoma type, meaning they originate in the epidermal layer of the skin. As a general rule, nonmelanomas are considerably less aggressive and life-threatening than melanomas. Fortunately, this means they can usually be cured if discovered and treated early. The most common cause is excessive sun exposure, but a person can be at a higher risk if they are fair skinned, male, older than 40, or have a family history.
Many nonmelanoma cases are diagnosed as basal cell carcinoma, which rarely spreads to other areas of the body but can cause damage to deep tissues like bone and muscle. Squamous cell carcinoma is less common, and it does sometimes spread elsewhere. Several other forms exist, although doctors see far fewer occurrences of these types. Anyone who has had skin cancer in the past may experience it again, even if their case was completely cured.
Most patients begin to suspect skin cancer when they notice a growth that has changed in shape, color, or size. Depending on the type of nonmelanoma cancer, other common symptoms may include:
Nonmelanoma skin cancer encompasses a few different kinds of skin cancer. The two main types of nonmelanoma skin cancer are squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma. These two types of skin cancer share the same basic causes.
The main cause of all types of nonmelanoma skin cancer is overexposure to UV radiation. Those who are out in the sun for long periods of time, and those with a history of sunburn, are at high risk for developing skin cancer. Over time, the UV rays from the sunlight disrupt the DNA structure of the skin. This results in damage and the eventual overgrowth of cells when skin cancer develops.
An abnormal immune response in the skin is another possible cause of nonmelanoma skin cancers. It is believed that sometimes the immune system overcompensates when attacking an invading organism. This can lead to inflammation in the skin. Various forms of skin cancer may develop in these locations.
There are two types of rare nonmelanoma skin cancers that have their own unique causes. Angiosarcoma is often caused by a buildup of lymphatic fluid in the skin. Merkel cell carcinoma is usually caused by either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma.
When undergoing treatment, the goal is to remove the cancer while preserving the nearby tissue. Depending on the size and location, many nonmelanoma skin cancers can be surgically removed with high success rates. Radiation therapy, cryosurgery, and follow-up exams are often used alongside surgery to minimize the chances of recurrence.
The most important way to prevent the development of nonmelanoma skin cancer is to avoid prolonged or excessive exposure to sunlight. If going out in the sun for an extended period of time, always use a sunblock with an SPF of at least 15. Those who have very fair skin may need to cover up as much as possible to achieve adequate UV protection.
The use of tanning beds and tanning equipment should be avoided, as these devices produce a massive amount of UV radiation.
Always have a physician check any suspicious lesion or lump on the skin. There are many types of precancerous growths that can develop into nonmelanoma skin cancers. If detected early, these cancers are much less difficult to treat successfully.