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Skin cancer: signs and symptoms, types, diagnosis, and treatment options

Skin cancer signs

Skin cancer is a condition where uncontrollable abnormal growth of skin cells takes place. It mainly occurs when the body cannot repair DNA damages inside skin cells, which develops due to overexposure to ultraviolet radiations. Apart from this, several other factors are also responsible for the damages of skin, including skin type and genetics. The most commonly known skin cancer signs are:

  • The lesion
  • Dark spots
  • A wound that does not get better
  • The development of an irregular-shaped compact mass on the skin

Facts about skin cancer

Skin cancer is a widely diagnosed cancer type in the United States. According to an estimation, nearly 3.5 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer every year in the US. The best thing is that they are mostly non-melanoma. It means, if it is diagnosed earlier, a dermatologist may treat it by an outpatient procedure. However, the most dangerous type of skin cancer is melanoma, which involves only around 1% of all skin cancer types. However, melanoma skin cancer is responsible for over 90% of deaths caused by all kinds of skin cancers.

Primarily, skin cancer develops due to the long-term rapid exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light emerging from the sun. Despite this, it can also grow on other skin parts that are generally not exposed to sunlight.

What causes skin cancer?

The leading cause of non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers is frequent exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light sources, such as tanning beds and sunlight. The risk increases with the rise in the number of exposure.

Besides exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, skin cancer also has several other common risk factors that include:

  1. Organ transplantation leading to a weakened immune system because of the use of immunosuppressive therapy
  2. Chemical exposure to carcinogens, such as paraffin, industrial tar, arsenic, coal, and certain types of oil
  3. Age (older people has a higher risk of skin cancer than younger)
  4. Gender (males have a higher risk of skin cancer than females)
  5. Moles on the skin
  6. Skin tone (Caucasians has a higher risk of skin cancer than non-white)
  7. Smoking tobacco
  8. Microbial or viral infection and any other diseases that result in the weakening of the immune system
  9. Family or personal history of skin cancer
  10. Kaposi sarcoma that associates with herpesvirus
  11. Genetically inherited conditions, like xeroderma pigmentosum
  12. Psoriasis treatment
  13. Radiation therapy exposure
  14. Gorlin syndrome or basal cell nervous syndrome 
  15. Infection of human papillomavirus (HPV)

Types of skin cancers

Common types of skin cancer are listed below:

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

It comprises over 80% of skin cancers that are diagnosed every year. It is likely to develop on those body parts that are repeatedly exposed to the sun. 

Recurrent basal cell carcinoma

This type of skin cancer either develops in the same parts with the most sun exposure or elsewhere in the body.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) 

It is more likely to attack fatty tissue beneath the skin than basal cell carcinoma. 


Melanoma is the most vulnerable skin cancer type that originates in melanocytes. However, melanocytes are the skin cells responsible for producing melanin, the brown pigment that darkens when exposed to sunlight.

Merkel cell carcinoma

In this type, cancer develops in cells that are responsible for the sensation of touching the skin. It is metastatic skin cancer and may spread to the brain, bones, lungs, or liver.

Kaposi sarcoma (KS)

Human herpesvirus 8 is a leading cause of this type of skin cancer. It originates in the blood vessels situated on the surface of the skin.

Cutaneous lymphoma

Lymphoma of the skin is a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Actinic keratosis

It is a type of precancerous growth that usually originates along with the development of squamous cell carcinoma.


It is a typical benign and non-cancerous tumor. This type of tumor goes away over time, but it can be treated just like squamous cell skin cancer if it continues to grow.

Skin cancer signs and symptoms

People should pay attention to the following warning skin cancer signs to protect themselves from this disease:

  1. Development of soreness or unusual skin growth that does not go away after primary treatment (they include irregular patches, a rash, or nodules on the skin surface)
  2. The appearance of pale patches on the skin, a pearly or waxy white luminous bump on the neck or head, or flesh-colored lesion or a brown-colored scar on the chest (these may be skin cancer signs for basal cell carcinomas)
  3. Development of rough and firm lumps on the skin surface: They sometimes look like scaly patches and reddish if they do not develop with nodule formation. It might be skin cancer signs for squamous cell carcinomas.
  4. The appearance of red or flesh-colored moles on the skin surface that originates and overgrows: It may be a skin cancer sign for Merkel cell carcinomas.

Stages of skin cancer

The skin cancer signs appear in several stages over time as cancer progresses. These stages are as follows:

1. Stage 0 

It is the initial stage. In this stage, cancer locates only in the upper epidermal layer of the skin. At this stage, cancer has not spread to the deeper layer of the dermis.

2. Stage 1

In the second stage, cancer spread deeper down. It grows more than two millimeters in thickness.

3. Stage 2

Cancer spreads into the subcutis layers of the skin or to the lower dermis. 

4. Stage 3

In this stage, invasion of cancer takes place into the tiny nerves present on the skin surface.

5. Stage 4

The cancer spreads to the ear or the hair-bearing lip.

Diagnosing skin cancers

Dermatologists diagnose the early skin cancer signs with a visual examination. According to the recommendations of the American Cancer Society and the Skin Cancer Foundation, everyone should have self-examinations every month and doctor visits in a year to screen for possible skin cancer. If you see some earlier skin cancer signs and are currently visiting a primary care physician, you need to concern a dermatologist for a more specialized diagnosis.

A dermatologist analyzes the skin through dermatoscopy. In this method, they use a special magnifying lens or microscope to examine the skin cancer signs closely. 

Tests used to diagnose skin cancers:

1. Biopsy

It is a diagnostic method in which a dermatologist removes the whole cancer growth and analyzes it under the microscope. There are several types of biopsy that a dermatologist may refer to:

  1. Excisional biopsy
  2. Shave biopsy
  3. Punch biopsy

2. Imaging test 

This method is used to determine whether skin cancer has metastasized to the internal body organs. Dermatologists may refer to this diagnosis method for melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma. Types of imaging tests are as follows:

  1. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  2. Computed tomography scan (CT scan)
  3. X-ray

Treatments of skin cancer

Mostly, dermatologists treat skin cancer in their offices or with outpatient surgery. However, dermatologists may refer to more aggressive treatment options for the metastasized types of skin cancer, such as melanoma or Merkel cell carcinoma.

The widely used treatment options for skin cancer are as follows:

1. Surgery

It is the most common method of skin cancer treatment. It involves the removal of whole cancer growth along with a small surrounding skin. 

2. Topical treatments

In this method, either photosensitive medication combined with light, chemotherapy, or Immune response enhancing creams are directly applied to the affected skin. There are three types of topical treatments.

  1. Photodynamic therapy
  2. Topical chemotherapy
  3. Immune response modifier

3. Chemotherapy

It involves the oral use of drugs to either inhibit the progression of cancer cells or destroy them.

4. Radiation therapy

It includes the application of radio beams directly on the skin surface where cancer is growing. Several types of radiotherapy are as follows:

  1. External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)
  2. TomoTherapy
  3. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)

5. Targeted therapy

It specifically targets the cancer pathways involved in the cancer progression without harming the normal tissues. Additionally, physicians do not recommend this treatment option to those women who may soon become pregnant or still are pregnant. It is used for the treatment of advanced basal cell carcinoma.

6. Immunotherapy

It involves the improvement of the immune system using some Immunotherapy drugs. It includes:

  1. Cytokines alpha-interferon (IFN-alpha)
  2. Interleukin-2 (IL-2)


To conclude, skin cancer is an abnormal growth of skin cells and one of the most common cancers in the US. Nearly 3.5 million cases of skin cancer are annually diagnosed in the US. The leading cause of skin cancer is rapid exposure to the sun. Subsequently, it causes damage to DNA or some mutations in the genetic materials. If the immune system is weak or has a large mutation, the body cannot repair the damaged DNA inside skin cells. Consequently, it leads to developing a cancerous compact mass of cells inside the skin. The most common skin cancer signs are the lesion, dark spots, or an irregular-shaped compact mass on the skin. 

Moreover, among all the skin cancers types’ melanoma is the most aggressive subtype. As far as skin cancer diagnosis concerns, it can be initially diagnosed through a visual examination. Additionally, several treatment options are available for skin cancer to date, but surgery is the most common one.

Written by HealthRadar360

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