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  • Breaking Down the Various Forms of Skin Cancer

    I am sure that you are already aware that spending countless hours in the sun without any protection can greatly increase your risk of skin cancer. However, were you aware that this is the most common form of cancer in humans?

    In fact, every year there are estimated to be at least 1 million new cases of skin cancer. The medical community has expressed concern over this issue, since the annual rates of all forms of skin cancer have been on the rise in recent years. Unless some changes are made, nearly half of all Americans who make it to age 65 will develop skin cancer at least once in their lifetime.

    Your dermatologist would tell you that there are generally a few early warning signs for skin cancer. In many cases, a change in the appearance of the skin, something like an unusual growth or a sore that won’t heal properly, could be a warning sign of skin cancer.

    Generally, if you have spent extended periods of time outside with little or no sunblock or any other protection, then it may be wise for you to schedule an appointment with your dermatologist.

    When it comes to skin cancer, there are actually three different types. These various forms of skin cancer that range in seriousness depending on how fast it can spread throughout the body if not detected in a timely manner. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two most common forms of skin cancer.

    Collectively, these two are usually referred to as nonmelanoma skin cancer. The most serious form of skin cancer is known as melanoma. As you might of guessed, melanoma is the most serious because of the rate at which it can metastasize (spread) throughout the patient’s body.

    Nodular Melanoma

    A nodular melanoma is the most serious form of melanoma. As you may recall, of the three basic forms of skin cancer, melanoma is the most dangerous one to have. Early detection is a must with a nodular melanoma, because of how aggressive this skin cancer tends to be.

    In most cases, it will grow more quickly in thickness than in diameter, which penetrates deeper into the patient’s skin. A nodular melanoma can develop in an area where there was never any previous lesion. These two factors alone show why this type of skin cancer is so serious.

    Often, people take longer to realize there is an issue, and by that time, the prognosis they receive is not very good. A nodular melanoma will usually have a dark pigment, though in some cases, they can be light brown, multicolored, or even colorless.

    The cases in which the nodular melanoma is colorless or light colored it can often go undetected for some time. However, it is common to have an ulcerated or bleeding lesion, which should raise some alarms.

    Basal Cell Carcinoma

    Accounting for 90% of all the skin cancer cases in the U.S., this is by far the most common form of skin cancer. Fortunately, basal cell carcinoma almost never metastasizes to the other parts of the body. Even so, they can still cause some damage by growing into surrounding tissue.

    Risk factors for basal cell carcinoma include exposure to the sun, light-colored skin, and age. Research has shown that there are higher rates of basal cell carcinoma among people who are older and have fair skin. Interestingly, almost 20% of these skin cancers occur in areas of the body which are not often exposed to the sun, such as the back, chest, legs, arms, and scalp.

    The most common area for basal cell carcinoma lesions is still on the face. In some cases, a weakened immune system can also increase a person’s risk of developing basal cell carcinoma.

    In most cases, basal cell carcinoma begins as a small bump which is dome shaped and often covered by telangiectases (these small, superficial blood vessels). To the human eye, the bump will often appear shiny and translucent. Some patients have even described as “pearly”. These bumps can often be quite difficult to distinguish from a benign type of growth, such as flesh-colored moles. If you are worried about any unusual or new growths, you should think about scheduling a biopsy.

    Squamous Cell Carcinoma

    This form of cancer is so aptly named because of where it originates, the squamous cells. These cells look like fish scales under the microscope, because they are thin and flat. Squamous cells are located in the tissue that forms the surface of our skin, the passages of the digestive and respiratory tracts, and the lining of the hollow organs in the body. Unfortunately, this means that squamous cell carcinoma can develop in any of these areas of the body.

    Research has shown that this form of skin cancer occurs only 25% as often as basal cell carcinoma. Important risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma include light-colored skin and a history of prolonged sun exposure. These actually tend to make people more predisposed to squamous cell carcinoma than basal cell carcinoma. Men tend to develop squamous carcinoma more often than women do, however this may be due to general differences in patterns of dress and hairstyle.

    In its earliest form, squamous cell carcinoma is referred to as actinic (or solar) keratosis. This appears as red bumps on the face, ears, scalp, and backs of the hand which are rough to the touch. In many cases, these bumps will appear in areas which already contain mottled, sun-damaged skin. The actinic keratosis can be quite sore and tender.

    Depending on the patient, the rate at which this keratosis can invade deeper into the skin and thus develop into full-fledged squamous cell carcinoma will vary, but it averages between 10%-20% over 10 years. In some cases, the time can be even less.
    When the squamous cell carcinoma grows rapidly, it can form a mound that has a central crater.

    This type of squamous cell carcinoma is called keratoacanthoma. Interestingly, some people consider this to be a condition which can take care of itself, and not a true cancer. However, most pathologists do not follow this train of thought, and treat this as they would any other case of aggressive squamous cell carcinoma.

    Again, if you find any growths that seem suspicious, please do not hesitate to set up an appointment with an oncologist or dermatologist. You can also visit The Skin Cancer Foundation for more info.