What Is Skin Cancer?

Cancer develops when your DNA – the molecule found in the cells that encode genetic information – becomes so damaged that the body cannot repair it. The damaged cells grow and divide uncontrollably, causing skin cancer to develop. As these damaged cells multiply, a tumor forms. Since skin cancer typically develops in the epidermis, the outermost skin layers, a tumor is often clearly visible, making most skin cancers detectable in the early stages.

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Who Gets Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer develops in people of all skin types and colors, from the darkest to the palest. However, it most likely occurs in those with fair skin,  blonde or red hair, light-colored eyes, a history of sun exposure, and a tendency to freckle or burn when exposed to the sun. Having a family history of skin cancer also increases your risk of developing skin cancer. Dark-skinned individuals who develop melanoma often see it on non-sun-exposed areas, such as the foot, underneath the nails, or on the mucous membranes of the nasal passages, mouth, or genitals. Fair-skinned individuals also develop melanoma in these areas.

Types of Skin Cancer

Three types of skin cancer account for almost 100% of the diagnosed cases. Each begins in a different cell within the skin and is named for the cell in which it begins. Divided into one of two classes, skin cancers can be non-melanoma or melanoma, with melanoma being the deadliest form.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

The most common skin cancer in humans, BCC develops in more than one million individuals yearly in the United States, accounting for approximately 80% of all skin cancers. BCC develops in the basal cells – the cells in the lowest layer of the epidermis – and may take several forms. Some appear as shiny translucent or pearly nodules, sores that continuously heal and then re-open, pink, slightly elevated growths, reddish patches of irritated skin, or waxy scars. 

Most BCC appears on skin with a history of sun exposure, such as the scalp, ears, face, and upper trunk. BCC tumors tend to grow slowly and can take years to reach a half-inch in size. While these tumors rarely metastasize (spread to other body parts), dermatologists encourage early diagnosis and treatment to prevent damage to the surrounding tissues.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

About 16% of skin cancers are diagnosed as SCC. This type begins in the squamous cells found in the upper layer of the epidermis. With approximately 200,000 cases diagnosed yearly, SCC tends to develop in fair-skinned, middle-aged, and older adults over long-term sun exposure. SCC most often appears as a scaly or crusted skin area with an inflamed, red base resembling a non-healing ulcer, growing tumor, or crusted skin patch. 

Most commonly appearing on sun-exposed areas of the body, SCC can develop anywhere, such as the inside of the mouth and the genitalia. It may arise from actinic keratoses or dry, scaly lesions that may be reddish-brown, skin-colored, or yellowish-black. This type of cancer requires early treatment to prevent metastasis (spreading).


Accounting for about four percent of all skin cancers diagnosed, melanoma begins in the melanocyte cells located in the epidermis and gives skin its color. Coined “the most lethal form of skin cancer” because it spreads rapidly to the lymph system and internal organs, melanoma is responsible for the death of approximately one person every hour in the United States alone. Older caucasian men experience the highest mortality rate from melanoma; dermatologists believe this is because they less readily heed the early warning signs. 

Early detection and proper treatment allow for a cure rate of about 95% for melanoma. Once its spreads, the prognosis is poor, so knowing the signs helps with early detection. Melanoma develops most often in a pre-existing mole. It also looks like a new mole, which is why people must know what their moles look like and be able to detect changes and spot new moles. 

Other Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers

All other types of skin cancer combined account for less than 1% of diagnosed cases – they are rare and aggressive forms of skin cancer that can spread quickly to other parts of the body and require prompt and specialized treatment, such as Mohs surgery. 

Classified as non-melanoma skin cancers, these include Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) – arising in the Merkel cells located in the hair follicles and involved in sensation; dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP) – from the connective tissue cells in the skin; angiosarcoma – arising from the blood vessels in the skin; and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma – from the lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell. 

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What Causes Skin Cancer?

Sun exposure remains the leading cause of skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, “Many of the more than one million skin cancers diagnosed each year could be prevented with protection from the sun’s rays.” Scientists now know that exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays damages DNA in the skin. The body can usually repair this damage before gene mutations occur and cancer develops. Cancer develops when a person’s body cannot fix the damaged DNA, which can occur with cumulative sun exposure. In some cases, skin cancer is an inherited condition. Between five and ten percent of melanomas develop in people with a family history of melanoma.

Skin Cancer Rates Rising

While Americans now recognize that overexposure to the sun is unhealthy, the fact remains that most do not protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays. As a result, skin cancer is common in the United States. More than one million non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed yearly, and approximately one person dies from melanoma every hour.

If current trends continue, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime. Melanoma continues to rise at an alarming rate. In 1930, 1 in 5,000 Americans was likely to develop melanoma during their lifetime. By 2004, this ratio jumped to 1 in 65. Today, melanoma is the second most common cancer in women aged 20 to 29.

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Prevention and Early Detection

Sun protection can significantly decrease a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. Sun protection practices include staying out of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the rays are strongest; applying a broad-spectrum (offers UVA and UVB protection) sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or higher year-round to all exposed skin; and wearing protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when outdoors.

Since skin cancer is so prevalent today, dermatologists also recommend that everyone learn how to recognize the signs of skin cancer, use this knowledge to perform regular skin examinations, and see a dermatologist annually (more frequently if at high risk) for an exam. Skin cancer is highly curable with early detection and proper treatment. If you notice something abnormal about your skin, our providers always recommend getting it checked out.

Skin Cancer Treatment Options

Once a biopsy has been obtained to confirm the type of skin cancer, the treatment for skin cancer will vary according to the type, location, extent, aggressiveness of the cancer, and the patient’s general health. The goals of treatment for skin cancer are to remove all of the cancerous cells, reduce the chance of recurrence, preserve healthy skin tissue, and minimize scarring after surgery. Treatment options may include Mohs micrographic surgery, electrodesiccation and curettage, cryotherapy, topical chemotherapy (Aldara or 5-FU), or standard excisions.

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Are You Unsure About a Spot on Your Skin?

Our medical providers at Skin Care Doctors are trained in the most advanced skin cancer detection and treatment techniques to ensure you remain as healthy as possible. If you have an abnormal mole or spot on your skin that causes concern, the best option is to come in for a skin assessment. Contact our office today for a thorough skin assessment and give yourself peace of mind.

Better skin health starts here. Schedule your appointment today.

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