3 Types of Skin Cancer


Chris Iliades, MD

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Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. One in five Americans will have some type of skin cancer at some point in their lives. That means you really need to know more about skin cancer. A good way to start is by learning about the different types—basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. 

1. Basal Cell Skin Cancer

Basal cell is the most common type of skin cancer. Getting too much ultraviolet light from the sun or from a tanning bed can harm skin cells and cause basal cell skin cancer. When the damage comes from the sun, basal cell cancer takes years to develop. It usually shows up after age 50. It can develop faster if you use a tanning bed. If you have a light complexion and you burn easily, you are at higher risk for getting this skin cancer. 

Signs of basal cell cancers include: 

  • A dome-shaped skin growth that grows slowly. You may be able to see tiny blood vessels near the surface.

  • A pale, waxy growth that looks like a scar

  • A shiny, scaly patch that's pink or red

  • A sore that bleeds and crusts but does not heal

To diagnose basal cell skin cancer, doctors take off a small piece of a suspicious growth and check it under a microscope. This procedure is a biopsy. Basal cell cancers are very treatable because they grow slowly and rarely spread. They are almost always curable. Treatment options include: 

  • Cryosurgery—freezing the growth with liquid nitrogen

  • Curettage and electrodessication—scraping away the growth and then destroying any remaining cancer cells with an electrical current

  • Medicated creams

  • Mohs surgery—removing the cancer and some cells around it layer by layer and using a microscope to check the cells for cancer. If need be, more layers are removed and checked. This continues until the doctor finds no more cancer cells.

  • Photodynamic therapy—putting a chemical treatment on the growth and using special lights that kill cancer cells

  • Radiation therapy

  • Surgical removal

2. Squamous Cell Skin Cancer

The causes and risk factors for squamous cell cancer are similar to those for basal cell. Getting too much ultraviolet (UV) light causes precancerous skin growths called actinic keratoses (AKs). These may develop into squamous cell cancers. AKs may appear as dry, scaly growths in areas of the body that get a lot of sun—the face, ears, hands, arms and legs. AKs may burn or itch.

Signs of squamous cell skin cancer include: 

  • A flat, scaly skin patch

  • A skin lump with a rough surface

  • A sore that bleeds and crusts but does not heal

Doctors also do a biopsy to diagnose squamous cell skin cancer. This type of skin cancer can grow deep and sometimes spreads to lymph nodes. If treated early, though, most squamous cell skin cancers are curable. Treatment options are similar to the ones used for basal cell skin cancers. 

3. Melanoma Skin Cancer

Melanomas cause fewer than 2% of skin cancers, but almost all deaths from skin cancer are from melanoma. That’s because melanomas spread more quickly and more deeply than the other types of skin cancer. Melanoma is the most common cancer in people 25 to 29 years old. Like other skin cancers, getting too much UV light causes melanoma. People who burn easily or have many large skin moles are at higher risk of melanoma. 

Changes in a skin mole can be a sign of melanoma. You can spot these changes by looking for the ABCDEs of melanoma: 

  • A is asymmetry—uneven shape—of a mole

  • B is an irregular border—or edge—to a mole

  • C is a variety of color in a mole—tan, brown, black, red, white or blue

  • D is for the diameter—or width—of a mole being bigger than the diameter of a pencil eraser

  • E is for evolving—meaning the mole is changing and looks different from other moles

To diagnose melanoma, doctors must do a biopsy. Even though melanoma is more dangerous than other skin cancers, it’s still almost 100% curable if it has not spread to any lymph nodes. Melanoma that has not spread is treated in much the same way as squamous and basal cell cancers. Melanoma that has spread to lymph nodes may need more surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.