It is reported that more than 2 million cases of skin cancer occur in the United States each year. One in five Americans will get skin cancer in their lifetime. Every hour someone will die of melanoma in the United States. You can help prevent and detect skin cancer with the help of your dermatologist.
Understanding Skin Cancer Treatments
The goal in treating skin cancer is to completely remove the cancerous area, which can be achieved through different surgical procedures which include:
- Mohs surgery involves saving the optimal amount of healthy skin while removing the cancerous area completely. Performing this procedure requires a dermatologist with exceptional skills and specialized additional training in Mohs surgery, such as Dr. Pennie. Because this method immediately verifies the complete removal of the cancerous tissue, Mohs surgery offers the highest success rate of all skin cancer treatments – up to 99%, according to the American College of Mohs Surgery. Learn more by reading Mohs Surgery FAQs.
- Excision involves removing the skin cancer and an additional margin of skin, depending on the cancer type. The specimen is then sent to an outside laboratory to verify the entire skin cancer has been removed.
- Curettage and electrodessication: This method may be appropriate for treating small basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. It typically involves a scrapping and cauterizing technique to destroy the cancerous cells.
Non-Surgical Skin Cancer Treatments
Surgery is not always the right treatment choice, such as when the patient’s health may preclude surgical options or additional treatment after surgery may be required. If skin cancer is detected early, surgery may not be needed. In such cases, one of the following treatments may be used:
- Immunotherapy: If your dermatologists recommends this option, your own immune system will be used to treat the cancer. As part of immunotherapy, you will apply a prescription cream to your skin under the guidance of your dermatologist. The cream, Imiquimod, modifies the way in which your immune system responds.
- Chemotherapy: For very thin, superficial skin cancers, your dermatologist may prescribe a topical chemotherapy. The medication is applied topically to the affected area and will destroy the abnormal skin cancer cells. New healthy skin will develop in the treated area once it has healed.
- Photodynamic Therapy: To perform this procedure, your dermatologist will apply a photosensitive compound to the area of skin cancer. After the compound has been on your skin for a few hours, your dermatologist will have you expose that area to a special light, which destroys the cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation treatment is usually reserved for patients who have very large tumors and would be disfigured by surgery, or for patients who are unable to have surgery due to other health problems. This method typically requires up to 30 separate treatments over a period of weeks.
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer develops when damaged skin cells cannot repair themselves and begin to grow and divide uncontrollably, forming a tumor. Skin cancer generally develops in the outermost layer of skin, usually allowing detection in its early stages.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer most frequently results from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, which harms the DNA with repeated exposure. In addition to repeated exposure to UV light outdoors, you are at increased risk of skin cancer if you:
- Frequently use tanning beds
- Regularly smoke cigarettes
- Have a suppressed immune system, such as if you suffer from leukemia or are an organ transplant recipient, because your immune system cannot ward off cancerous cells as effectively as healthy individuals.
What are the Different Types of Skin Cancer?
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) – the most common form of skin cancer usually appears on sun-exposed areas (face, ears, scalp, upper trunk) and may look like a blemish that won’t heal or a shiny, pearly bump that does not go away. It may bleed if minor trauma occurs to that area. Alternatively, basal cell carcinoma my look like a rough, reddened patch. BCCs tends to grow slowly and rarely metastasizes.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) – the second most common type usually occurring in sun exposed areas but can develop anywhere on the body. They may arise from pre-cancerous lesions called actinic keratoses which are dry, scaly lesions. Typically they look like a red, crusted bump or rough scaly patch.
Melanoma – the most lethal form of skin cancer because it can spread to the lymph system and internal organs. If often develops in an existing mole or a new mole. Typically they are brown to black lesions that have uneven borders, colors or surfaces. When they appear on sun-damaged skin such as the face, melanomas may look like a brown patch or unevenly colored freckle. Self skin checks are so important to detect changes in existing moles and to spot new ones.
How is Skin Cancer Treated?
There is a wide range of skin cancer treatments available. Your provider will discuss the appropriate treatment based on several factors including but not limited to:
- The type of skin cancer
- The location of skin cancer on your body
- If it is an aggressive form and if it is deep and/or has spread to surrounding tissues or to other parts of the body
- Your physical health
Who Gets Skin Cancer?
- Skin cancer is more likely in those with fair skin, light colored eyes, blonde or red hair and those who tend to freckle or sunburn. However, anyone of any skin color can develop skin cancer.
- A family history of skin cancer increases your risk.
How Can I Prevent Skin Cancer?
- Wear a sunblock of at least SPF 30 year-round to sun-exposed skin. Make sure your sunblock protects against both UVA and UVB light, the most harmful rays of the sun.
- Wear protective clothing such as a wide-brimmed hat, UV protective shirt and sunglasses; seek shade and avoid the sun during “peak hours” of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are the strongest.
- Reapply your sunblock every 2 hours when outdoors and more frequently if you’ve been sweating or swimming.
- Self-check and familiarize yourself with your skin with monthly self-skin exams. Be aware of changes in the size, shape and color or your moles and let your dermatologist know of any lesions that are tender, bleeding, itching or not healing after 2-3 weeks.
- Do no use UV tanning beds. Self tanning lotions are a safer way to get a tanned look.