Frequently Asked Questions About Skin Cancer

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • What is Skin Cancer?

    Skin cancer is a general term used to encompass three types of cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. All of these cancers form in the layers of the skin with basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma being the most common, however, these are not normally life-threatening. Melanoma, a less common form of skin cancer, is much more serious.


    Who Is at Risk of Developing Skin Cancer?

    Skin cancer is often caused by overexposure to the UV rays of the sun, which damage skin cells. Over use of tanning beds has also been connected to developing skin cancer. Other risk factors include:

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    • Family history of skin cancer
    • Having a large number of moles
    • A weak immune system
    • Being fair skinned, especially those with freckles
    • Having blond or red hair
    • Having blue or green eyes
    • A history of skin diseases or previous damage to skin from injury or burns

    Although there are different risk factors, overexposure to UV rays from the sun is the number one cause of skin cancer. Those who have had sunburns, even as a child, are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer later in life.


    What Are the Warning Signs of Skin Cancer?

    New growths, moles, spots or moles that change in size or color can be warning signs of skin cancer.  You should talk with your doctor if you notice any of the following:

    • Moles that change in color, size, texture or thickness
    • Moles that have irregular borders
    • Moles, spots or growths larger than ¼ inch (the size of a pencil eraser)
    • Spots or sores that are itchy, hurt, bleed or scab
    • Sores that do not heal after several weeks

    Skin cancer does not always cause pain or discomfort so if you see changes or new growths, you should talk with a dermatologist immediately. Do not put it off because you do not have pain.


    How Is Skin Cancer Diagnosed?

    If your doctor thinks you may have skin cancer, he will remove a part of the mole or lesion and perform a biopsy, looking at the cells under a microscope. A biopsy will tell your doctor if it cancerous and, if so, the stage. Skin cancer is usually divided into two stages: local, which means it has not spread, and metastatic, which means it has spread beyond the skin. If it is determined your cancer is metastatic, your doctor may order additional tests to determine how much and where the cancer has spread.


    How Is Skin Cancer Treated?

    Based on your specific cancer, your doctor has different options to treat the cancer. Your doctor should talk with you about all of your options and which (and why) treatment he believes would be best for you. The treatment options include:

    Some of these methods may not be right for the type of skin cancer you have. You should understand the pros and cons of each treatment method before deciding what is best for you.


    How Can I Protect Myself Against Skin Cancer?

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    Minimizing your exposure to UV rays is the best preventive measure. Using sunscreen every time you are outdoors, avoiding being in the sun during midday when the sun is strongest and wearing sunglasses and large brimmed hats, long sleeve shirts and pants if you must be out in the sun during these hours. Remember that UV rays are present throughout the year, so sunscreen should be used all year, not just in the summer. Tanning beds and sunlamps also have UV radiation and should be avoided.


    Because skin cancer is related to a lifetimes exposure to UV rays, it is important to keep up with a regimen of protecting yourself when out in the sun all the time.




    “Frequently Asked Questions About Skin Cancer,” Updated 2009, Nov 16, Staff Writer, Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing


    “Skin Cancer,” Reviewed 2009, August, Staff Writer, National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


    “Skin Cancers,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, World Health Organization


    “Skin Cancer FAQ,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, The Ohio State University

Published On: June 20, 2012