Skin Cancer FAQs

What are the most common types of skin cancer?

Basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer and melanoma account for 99% of skin cancers.

What is basal cell cancer and what does it look like?

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for about 80% of all diagnosed skin cancers. It arises from the bottom or base of the uppermost skin layer (epidermis). Most do not spread beyond the skin to other parts of the body. They typically grow slowly on the skin but should be removed because of the extensive local damage they can cause in surrounding tissue. A BCC can have many appearances. Typically it appears as a small pearly or pink skin-colored bump. It may also appear as a scar-like growth or scaly area. Untreated, the cancer often will bleed, crust over, heal, and repeat the cycle.

What is squamous cell cancer and what does it look like?

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer. It develops from cells above the bottom of the epidermis known as squamous cells. This is a potentially more dangerous type of cancer than BCC because of its ability to sometimes “break away” (metastasize) from the skin and spread to local lymph nodes or less commonly to distant areas of the body. This occurs more often with large, aggressive squamous cell carcinomas or rapidly-growing tumors on the ears, scalp, lips or genitalia. An increased risk of spread is also seen in patients that are immunosuppressed, such as organ transplant patients, or those with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), or in tumors that have recurred after previous treatment. SCC may appear as a persistent rough scaly area or a hard red bump. It also commonly arises on areas that are chronically exposed to the sun, such as the face, scalp, neck, upper back, and arms.

What is melanoma and what does it look like?

The third most common type of skin cancer also has the potential to be the most dangerous, accounting for 75% of all skin cancer related deaths. Melanoma develops from melanocytes, the skin cells that produce the pigment called melanin, which give the skin, hair and eyes their color. Its appearance can vary but the cancer classically has mixed shades of tan, brown, and black with asymmetry and irregular borders. It can develop in a mole or appear as a new mole. Less commonly it can also be red or white. Melanoma can appear anywhere on the body. In men, it is most common on the chest, back and stomach. In women, it is most common on the lower legs. Melanomas on chronically sun-damaged skin like the face may appear like a brown patch or freckle with irregular color.

What is an actinic keratosis (AK)?

Actinic or solar keratoses are considered “pre-cancerous” or the earliest stage in the development of skin cancer. They result from chronic sun exposure and are small, scaly spots most commonly found on the face, ears, neck, lower arms, and back of the hands. Actinic keratoses are treated most commonly by cryotherapy (freezing), topical chemotherapy (applying a cream or lotion), chemical peeling, curettage, or photodynamic therapy (a chemical is applied to the skin prior to exposure to a light source). Some lesions may progress, especially if left untreated, to form more invasive lesions (squamous cell carcinoma), which then require more aggressive treatment.

Can I get skin cancer anywhere on my body?

Yes. While skin cancers usually appear on skin that has been chronically exposed to the sun (like the head, neck, arms, and chest), you can get skin cancer anywhere – even on skin that has rarely or “never” been exposed to the sun.

What can I do to protect myself from skin cancer?

The damage that your skin has already received from the sun cannot be completely reversed. However, several precautions can be taken to reduce your risk of developing further skin cancers. Read Dr. Giuffrida’s skin cancer prevention tips.

Will my skin cancer come back (recur)?

While no method can guarantee a cure 100% of the time, appropriately and correctly performed Mohs surgery provides the highest possible cure rate for most tumors, up to 99% for new skin cancers and 95% for recurrent skin cancers.

Will I develop more skin cancers?

Studies have shown that once you develop a skin cancer, there is an increased risk of developing others. For this reason, it is important for you to schedule regular skin exam screenings.

Is sunscreen safe?

Yes, sunscreen is safe to use. No published studies show that sunscreen is toxic to humans or hazardous to human health. Scientific studies actually support using sunscreen. Research shows that wearing sunscreen can reduce your risk of getting skin cancer. Sunscreen also can reduce premature skin aging.

Is indoor tanning safe?

The World Health Organization has declared indoor tanning devices to be cancer-causing agents that are in the same category as tobacco. Studies have found a 75% increase in the risk of melanoma in those who have been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning.

Do I need sun exposure for my Vitamin D levels?

As per the Skin Cancer Foundation: Vitamin D is essential for strong bones and a healthy immune system. A recent review of 1,000 studies by the Institute of Medicine in Washington, DC, found that the vast majority of Americans are taking in enough vitamin D, and that there is no sound evidence vitamin D insufficiency is leading to a wave of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.

The Skin Cancer Foundation advises children and adults under age 70 who regularly practice sun protection to obtain the recommended daily 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D a day from food sources such as oily fish, fortified dairy products and cereals, and supplements. Four hundred IU are appropriate for infants under 12 months old, and 800 are recommended for people 70 and older.

The Foundation cautions the public against intentional exposure to natural sunlight or artificial UV radiation (tanning beds) as a means of obtaining vitamin D, since the health risks of UV exposure – including skin cancer and premature skin aging – are significant and well proven.

Is most of my sun damage done in childhood?

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, contrary to popular belief, 80 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure is not acquired before age 18; only about 23 percent of lifetime exposure occurs by age 18.