The cancers appear as growths on the skin, and each type of skin cancer has its own unique characteristics.
These growths can develop from excess exposure to sunlight, not using sunscreen (or using one with a low SPF), or heredity.
Most skin cancers can be identified through a simple visual examination. Basal cell carcinoma forms in the small round cells on the outer layer of the skin. Squamous cell carcinomas are usually larger and have a flatter appearance. Melanoma can develop in moles, or raised clusters of skin pigment, on the surface of the skin.
Moles are extremely common and usually benign; if the growth changes shape or color, it should be examined by a doctor. Swollen lymph nodes can also be an indicator of skin cancer and a doctor will often examine these glands to help determine a positive skin cancer diagnosis.
Skin cancer is usually diagnosed through a biopsy, in which the doctor examines a small section of the lesion. One of four types of biopsies are usually administered:
- Shave biopsy: The doctor will cut away the lesion for a closer examination. This is most effective if basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma is suspected.
- Punch biopsy: A small hole is punched into the lesion and a section of the growth is removed
- Incisional biopsy: The doctor uses a scalpel to remove a small part of the lesion
- Excisional biopsy: The entire lesion, as well as some excess surrounding tissue, is removed. This procedure is usually done to diagnose melanoma.
Once a positive diagnosis is determined, the doctor and patient would then decide on the best course of treatment. If melanoma is diagnosed, treatment would be determined by the size of the lesion, how deeply it has spread into the other layers of skin, and whether or not it has metastasized to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body. Surgery is usually the most effective form of treatment for melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas rarely metastasize, so removing the lesion is often the only treatment needed for those types of cancers.
When the growths are removed, the affected area should continue to be monitored by both the patient and their doctor to ensure that the lesions do not return. Most doctors recommend that patients keep their sun exposure to a minimum, wear sunscreen, and keep their skin covered as much as possible when they are outside. Although skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer, it is also one of the most highly treatable and curable.