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Skin cancer — the abnormal growth of skin cells — most often develops on skin exposed to the sun. But this common form of cancer can also occur on areas of your skin not ordinarily exposed to sunlight. There are three major types of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. You can reduce your risk of skin cancer by limiting or avoiding exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Checking your skin for suspicious changes can help detect skin cancer at its earliest stages. Early detection of skin cancer gives you the greatest chance for successful skin cancer treatment.
Causes of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer occurs when errors (mutations) form the in the DNA of healthy skin cells. The mutations cause the cells to grow out of control and form a mass of cancer cells.
Cells involved in skin cancer
Skin cancer begins in your skin's top layer — the epidermis. The epidermis is a thin layer that provides a protective cover of skin cells that your body continually sheds. The epidermis contains three main types of cells:
Where your skin cancer begins determines its type and your treatment options.
Ultraviolet light and other potential causes
Much of the damage to DNA in skin cells results from ultraviolet (UV) radiation found in sunlight and in commercial tanning lamps and tanning beds. But sun exposure doesn't explain skin cancers that develop on skin not ordinarily exposed to sunlight. This indicates that other factors may contribute to your risk of skin cancer, such as being exposed to toxic substances or having a condition that weakens your immune system.
Signs & Symptoms of Skin Cancer
Where skin cancer develops
Skin cancer develops primarily on areas of sun-exposed skin, including the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms and hands, and on the legs in women. But it can also form on areas that rarely see the light of day — your palms, beneath your fingernails, the spaces between your toes or under your toenails, and your genital area. Skin cancer affects people of all skin tones, including those with darker complexions. When melanoma occurs in those with dark skin tones, it's more likely to occur in areas not normally considered to be sun-exposed.
Basal cell carcinoma signs and symptoms
Basal cell carcinoma usually occurs in sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your face, ears or scalp. Basal cell carcinoma may appear as:
Squamous cell carcinoma signs and symptoms
Most often, squamous cell carcinoma occurs on sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your face, lips, ears and hands. Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as:
Melanoma signs and symptoms
Melanoma can develop anywhere on your body, in otherwise normal skin or in an existing mole that becomes cancerous. Melanoma most often appears on the trunk, head or neck of affected men. In women, this type of cancer most often develops on the lower legs. In both men and women, melanoma can occur on skin that hasn't been exposed to the sun. Melanoma can affect people of any skin tone. In people with darker skin tones, melanoma tends to occur on the palms or soles, or under the fingernails or toenails.
Melanoma signs include:
Signs and symptoms of less common skin cancers
Other, less common types of skin cancer include:
Diagnosis of Skin Cancer
Diagnosing skin cancer
To diagnose skin cancer, your doctor may:
Determining the extent of the skin cancer
If your doctor determines you have skin cancer, he or she may recommend additional tests to determine the extent, or stage, of the skin cancer. Because superficial skin cancers such as basal or squamous cell carcinoma rarely spread, a biopsy often is the only test needed to determine the cancer stage. But if you have a large growth or one that's existed for some time, your doctor may recommend further tests to determine the extent of the cancer.
Skin cancer is generally divided into two stages:
The skin cancer's stage helps determine which treatment options will be most effective.
Treatments of Skin Cancer
Treatment for skin cancer and the precancerous skin lesions known as actinic keratoses varies, depending on the size, type, depth and location of the lesions. Small skin cancers limited to the surface of the skin may not require treatment beyond an initial skin biopsy that removes the entire growth.
If additional treatment is needed, options may include:
Prevention of Skin Cancer
Most skin cancers are preventable. To protect yourself, follow these skin cancer prevention tips:
When to seek Medical Advice
Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any changes to your skin that worry you. Not all skin changes are caused by skin cancer. Your doctor will investigate your skin changes to determine a cause.
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