Skin Cancer

Disease database

Skin cancer is a prevalent and potentially life-threatening disease that affects millions of people worldwide. It occurs when skin cells undergo abnormal growth, leading to the formation of skin lesions, moles, bumps, ulcers, scaly patches, itching, bleeding, and other concerning symptoms. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for skin cancer is crucial for early detection and effective management of this condition.

Causes of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is primarily caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or artificial sources such as tanning beds. Prolonged and unprotected exposure to UV radiation damages the DNA in skin cells, leading to mutations that can trigger abnormal cell growth and the development of cancerous tumors. Other risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Fair skin, light-colored hair, and freckles
  • History of severe sunburns
  • Presence of numerous moles or atypical moles
  • Suppressed immune system

Types of Skin Cancer

There are several types of skin cancer, each with distinct characteristics and treatment approaches. The most common types include:

1. Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most prevalent form of skin cancer. It typically appears as a small, shiny bump or a pinkish patch of skin. Although it rarely spreads to other parts of the body, it can cause significant local damage if left untreated.

2. Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma often develops on sun-exposed areas such as the face, ears, and hands. It may present as a firm, red nodule or a scaly patch of skin. While it has a higher risk of spreading compared to basal cell carcinoma, early detection and treatment can be highly effective.

3. Melanoma

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer as it can spread rapidly to other organs. It usually appears as a new mole or a change in an existing mole. Signs of melanoma include asymmetry, irregular borders, multiple colors, and a larger diameter than a pencil eraser.

Symptoms of Skin Cancer

Recognizing the symptoms of skin cancer is crucial for early detection and prompt medical intervention. Common signs to watch out for include:

  • Changes in the appearance of moles or birthmarks
  • New growths on the skin
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Itching, tenderness, or pain in a specific area
  • Bleeding or oozing from a skin lesion

Treatment Options

The treatment for skin cancer depends on various factors, including the type, stage, and location of the cancerous growth. The primary treatment options include:

1. Surgery

Surgical removal of the cancerous tissue is a common approach for treating skin cancer. The extent of surgery may vary, ranging from simple excision of the tumor to more complex procedures such as Mohs surgery, which involves removing layers of skin until no cancer cells remain.

2. Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It is often used as an adjunct to surgery or when surgery is not feasible. Radiation therapy may cause temporary side effects such as skin irritation and fatigue.

3. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It is typically reserved for advanced cases of skin cancer that have spread to other parts of the body. Chemotherapy can cause various side effects, including nausea, hair loss, and fatigue.

4. Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy harnesses the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. It can be highly effective in treating advanced melanoma and other types of skin cancer. Common immunotherapy drugs include checkpoint inhibitors and targeted therapies.

Prevention and Self-Examination

Preventing skin cancer is crucial, and adopting sun-safe practices can significantly reduce the risk. Here are some essential tips:

  • Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF regularly
  • Seek shade during peak sun hours (10 am to 4 pm)
  • Wear protective clothing, including hats and sunglasses
  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps
  • Perform regular self-examinations of your skin

Self-examination involves checking your skin for any changes or abnormalities. Follow the ABCDE rule to identify potential signs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: One half of the mole or lesion does not match the other half.
  • Border: The edges of the mole are irregular, blurred, or poorly defined.
  • Color: The mole has multiple colors or an uneven distribution of color.
  • Diameter: The mole is larger than 6 millimeters in diameter.
  • Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

If you notice any concerning changes or symptoms, it is essential to consult a dermatologist for a professional evaluation and appropriate management.


Skin cancer is a serious health concern that requires awareness, prevention, and early detection. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options, individuals can take proactive steps to protect their skin and seek timely medical intervention when necessary. Remember to prioritize sun safety, perform regular self-examinations, and consult a healthcare professional for any concerning skin changes. With proper care and vigilance, the impact of skin cancer can be minimized, and lives can be saved.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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