Nonmelanoma skin cancers are common and treatable.
What you need to know about skin cancers
Skin cancer is a disease in which cells in your skin change and grow out of control to form a tumor. It can happen anywhere in the body, but most often develops in skin that is exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, hands and arms. Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of their skin color.
Skin cancers are either nonmelanoma or melanoma. Nonmelanoma cancers are the more common and less-dangerous forms of skin cancer because they rarely spread. An estimated 3 million Americans a year get nonmelanoma cancer, making it the most common form of cancer in the United States. It is curable, usually with a simple procedure or topical medicine (applied to the skin). If found early, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent.
Who is at risk for nonmelanoma skin cancer?
The most common risk factors include:
- Sun exposure. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays damage skin. The more time you spend in the sun, the greater your chances of getting skin cancer.
- Use of tanning booths and sunlamps. Artificial UV rays can also damage the skin, and the risk of cancer is especially high if they are used before age 30.
- Certain colors of skin, hair, and eyes. People with pale skin, red or blond hair, and green, blue, or gray eyes have an increased risk of skin cancer. Having many freckles also increases your risk but people with darker skin can get skin cancer.
- Personal history of skin cancer or precancer. People who have had skin cancer before are at increased risk of getting it in the future. The same is true of people who have had skin precancer, such as actinic keratosis.
- Older age. While skin cancer can occur at any age, the risk rises as people get older.
- Being male. Men are more likely to get nonmelanoma skin cancers than women.
- Weak immune system. People who have a weak immune system, such as people who have had an organ transplant, are at higher risk of skin cancer. Their skin cancer is also more likely to be serious.
- Exposure to arsenic or hydrocarbons.
- Past radiation treatment.
- Scars, burns, or inflamed skin. Skin cancers are more likely to develop in areas of damaged skin.
- Smoking. People who smoke are more likely to get skin cancer, especially on the lips.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Certain types of HPV can infect the skin in the genital area and increase the risk of skin cancer there.
- Certain rare inherited conditions. People with a condition such as basal cell nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome) or xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) have a much higher risk of skin cancer, starting at an early age.
- Certain medicines. Medicines that weaken the immune system and medicines that make the skin more likely to sunburn can increase the risk for skin cancers.
Understanding your diagnosis
Being told you have skin cancer can be scary, and you may have many questions. Learning about your cancer and the treatment options you have can help make you feel less afraid.
There are several types of skin cancer. Melanoma is the most serious, nonmelanoma is the most common. Nonmelanoma cancers include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, Merkel cell carcinoma, cutaneous (skin) lymphoma, and Kaposi sarcoma. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are by far the most common nonmelanoma skin cancers.
Following a diagnosis of skin cancer, you may have more tests to help your doctor understand where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and if it is affecting other parts of your body, known as cancer staging.
Most nonmelanoma skin cancer can be treated by a dermatologist. If your cancer is more advanced you may also have other types of doctors on your healthcare team. We have experts ready to help!
Basal cell carcinoma
This is the most common form of skin cancer. It occurs in the cells in the deepest levels of the skin; more than 80 percent of all skin cancers are this type. The cancer lesion often looks like small, raised, shiny or pearly bumps, but it can have a lot of different looks such as crusty, itchy patches or flat white or yellow spots.
Nearly all basal cell cancers can be treated and cured. This type of cancer rarely spreads to other parts of the body, but if not treated it can grow deeper into bone and tissues under the skin and can cause serious damage to the bone. Having a basal cell carcinoma means you will likely get new ones in other places and puts you at higher risk for other types of skin cancer.
Squamous cell carcinoma
This is the second most common form of skin cancer. It forms in the outer part of the skin. It often starts in skin exposed to the sun but also starts in skin of the genital area, in scars, and in chronic skin sores. Squamous cell cancer lesions often appear as rough, scaly, wart-like, reddish patch on the skin that tends to grow quickly. Most squamous cell carcinoma is found early enough to be treated and cured.
Skin cancer detection and prevention
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, skin cancer warning signs include:
- Changes in size, shape, or color of a mole or other skin lesion.
- The appearance of a new growth on the skin.
- A sore that doesn't heal.
If you notice any spots on your skin that are different from the others, or anything changing, itching or bleeding, see a healthcare provider for a comprehensive evaluation.
The best way to prevent skin cancers is to limit exposure to UV light. Stay out of indoor tanning beds and protect your skin outdoors.
- Seek shade.
- Wear protective clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection.
- Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to all skin not covered by clothing.
Early-stage skin cancers can often be treated with surgery alone. There are several type of surgeries. All are fairly minor, and you can usually go home the same day. The choice of treatment depends on the tumor type, size, location and depth, as well as the patient's age and general health.
More advanced skin cancers may need additional treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
You are not alone. Legacy offers support throughout your cancer journey, as well as care for your emotional, social and spiritual needs.
Legacy Cancer Healing Center
Support groups and classes
Nonmelanoma skin cancer: Stages
American Cancer Society: What are basal and squamous cell skin cancers?
Skin Cancer Foundation: Warning signs and information
National Cancer Institute: Skin cancer treatment overview
Meet our provider
Jennifer Garreau, M.D.
Legacy Medical Group – Surgical Oncology
1040 N.W. 22nd Ave., Suite 560
Portland OR 97210