Skin Cancer: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Pamela Cannaday by Pamela Cannaday | Licensed since 2011

This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Up to 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will develop one of the most common types of skin cancer at least once according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Being able to recognize skin cancer on your own body may help you get timely treatment.

What causes skin cancer?

Like other types of cancer, skin cancer is caused by mutations in the DNA of cells, according to the Mayo Clinic. The mutations cause the cells to grow out of control. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation in natural sunlight and tanning beds can cause much damage to skin cells that results in skin cancer. However, skin cancer can also develop in areas not exposed to the sun, such as the genitals and underneath the fingernails and toenails. According to the Mayo Clinic, risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • Fair skin (although people of all skin colors can get skin cancer)
  • A history of sunburns
  • Tanning
  • Living at high elevations with strong sunlight
  • Having abnormal moles
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A weak immune system
  • Exposure to arsenic or radiation

What are the symptoms of skin cancer?

The two most common types of skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, are basal cell and squamous cell. Basal cell skin cancer starts in the lowest layer of the skin. Squamous cell cancer starts in the top layer of the skin. Basal cell skin cancer usually appears in areas of your body that have been exposed to the sun, according to the Mayo Clinic. It may appear as a pearly or waxy bump or flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion. Squamous cell skin cancer also appears on areas that have been exposed to the sun, such as your face, ears, and hands. It appears a firm, red nodule or a flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface.

Melanoma, a third type of skin cancer, can occur on skin that has not been exposed to the sun. Melanoma may look like a large brownish spot with darker speckles, according to the Mayo Clinic. Melanoma may also appear as a mole that changes in color or size or that bleeds. Melanoma may occur in the mouth, nose, vagina, or anus.

You may experience more symptoms of skin cancer if the cancer spreads beyond the skin. When you are diagnosed with skin cancer your skin cancer will be staged as 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 according to the American Cancer Society. The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. The initial stages of skin cancer may not necessarily make you feel sick. This is why it’s important to know how to do how to do a skin self-exam to identify skin cancer.

What is the treatment for skin cancer?

It’s important to seek skin cancer treatment before the cancer metastasizes, or travels to lymph nodes, distant tissues, and organs.

The first treatment for skin cancer may be surgery, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. With a scalpel, a doctor will remove the skin cancer growth and a surrounding border of skin as a safety precaution.

A doctor may also perform cryosurgery on your skin cancer. Cryosurgery destroys the skin cancer tumor by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. Cryosurgery has a lower overall cure rate than surgical methods, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

If your skin cancer has spread, your doctor may use chemotherapy to attack cancer cells that have traveled beyond the skin. Chemotherapy drugs can be injected into a vein or taken by mouth. Chemotherapy treatment may cause many side effects, including hair loss, fatigue, nausea and loss of appetite.

Do you have questions about Medicare coverage of skin cancer?

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