Skin cancer is one
of the common forms of cancer and the incidence is rising.
While skin cancers can be found on any part of the body,
about 80 percent appear on the face, head, or neck,
where they can be disfiguring as well as dangerous.
The primary cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation
-most often from the sun. Researchers believe that an
increase in outdoor activities and perhaps the thinning
of the earth's protective ozone layer are behind the
alarming rise we're now seeing in skin cancers.
Your risk of getting
skin cancer is greater if...
• Your skin is fair and freckles easily.
• You have light-colored hair and eyes.
• You have a large number of moles, or moles of unusual
size or shape.
• You have a family history of skin cancer or a personal
history of blistering sunburn.
• You spend a lot of time working or playing outdoors.
• You live closer to the equator, at a higher altitude,
or in any place that gets intense, year-round sunshine.
• You received therapeutic radiation treatments for
COMMON TYPES OF SKIN CANCER
By far the most common
type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. Fortunately,
it's also the least dangerous kind--it tends to grow
slowly, and rarely spreads beyond its original site.
Though basal cell carcinoma is seldom life-threatening,
if left untreated it can grow deep beneath the skin
and into the underlying tissue and bone, causing serious
damage (particularly if it's located near the eye).
Squamous cell carcinoma
is the next most common kind of skin cancer, frequently
appearing on the lips, face, or ears. It sometimes spreads
to distant sites, including lymph nodes and internal
organs. Squamous cell carcinoma can become life threatening
if it's not treated.
A third form of skin
cancer, malignant melanoma, is the least common, but
its incidence is increasing rapidly. It is also the
most dangerous type of skin cancer. If discovered early
enough, it can be completely cured. If it's not treated
quickly, however, malignant melanoma may spread throughout
the body and is often deadly.
Two other common types
of skin growths are moles and keratoses. Moles are clusters
of heavily pigmented skin cells, either flat or raised
above the skin surface. While most pose no danger, some-particularly
large moles present at birth, or those with mottled
colors and poorly defined borders-may develop into malignant
melanoma. Moles are frequently removed for cosmetic
reasons, or because they're constantly irritated by
clothing or jewelry. Solar or actinic keratoses are
rough, red or brown, scaly patches on the skin. They
are usually found on areas exposed to the sun, and sometimes
develop into squamous cell cancer.
RECOGNIZING SKIN CANCER
squamous cell carcinomas can vary widely in appearance.
The cancer may begin as small, white or pink nodule;
it can be smooth and shiny, waxy, or pitted on the surface.
Or it might appear as a red spot that's rough, dry,
or scaly...a firm, red lump that may form a crust...a
crusted group of nodules...a sore that bleeds or doesn't
melanoma is usually signaled by a change in the size,
shape, or color of an existing mole, or as a new growth
on normal skin. Any change in a pigmented lesion, rapid
increase in its size, shape and color may serve as a
warning sign of malignant change.
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
Skin cancer is diagnosed
by removing all or part of the growth and examining
its cells under a microscope by a pathologist. It can
be treated by a number of methods, depending on the
type of cancer, its stage of growth, and its location
on your body.
Most skin cancers are
removed surgically, by a plastic surgeon. If the cancer
is small, the procedure is a simple excision, which
usually leaves a thin, barely visible scar. It is done
as an outpatient using local anesthesia.
If the cancer is large, however, or if it has spread
to the lymph glands or elsewhere in the body, major
surgery may be required. Other possible treatments for
skin cancer include cryosurgery (freezing the cancer
cells), radiation therapy (using x-rays), topical chemotherapy
(anti-cancer drugs applied to the skin), and Mohs surgery,
a special procedure in which the cancer is shaved off
one layer at a time.
All of the treatments
mentioned above, when chosen carefully and appropriately,
have good cure rates for most basal cell and squamous
cell cancers -and even for malignant melanoma, if it's
caught very early, before it has a chance to spread.
A WORD ABOUT RECONSTRUCTION
techniques used in treating skin cancers can be life
saving, but they may leave a patient with less than
pleasing cosmetic or functional results. It may range
from a small but unsightly scar to permanent changes
in facial structures such as your nose, ear, or lip.
Reconstructive techniques, ranging from a simple scar
revision to a complex transfer of tissue flaps from
elsewhere on the body, can often repair damaged tissue,
rebuild body parts, and restore most patients to acceptable
appearance and function.