As the most common cancer in the United States, skin cancer cannot be ignored. It’s estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. However, there are differing levels of severity—and thus mortality.
Dr. Vip Dev, plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Mercy and Memorial Hospitals, breaks down the three main types of skin cancer, why screening is so important, and how to properly protect yourself before skin cancer manifests.
Types of Skin Cancer
Dr. Dev describes basal cell carcinoma as the “simplest” of the three. It occurs with exposure to sunlight, but individuals may also be born with the disease. Approximately 12 different subtypes of basal cell carcinoma exist. It’s important to diagnose the subtype correctly to identify the best treatment.
The next level is squamous cell carcinoma. This type has about a 25% chance of spreading to other parts of the body, what’s called metastasizing. Again, there are several subtypes.
The third type of skin cancer is the most troubling: melanoma. “That's the one we're all really concerned about. Oftentimes, it is referred to as ‘malignant melanoma,’ but plastic surgeons and dermatologists will rarely use those words because that's redundant. Melanoma, by definition, is malignant,” states Dr. Dev.
Treatment for melanoma also depends on the subtype. “It may require chemotherapy and other types of cancer treatments we don’t normally need for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas,” he adds.
While regular visits to a dermatologist are the best way to undergo screening, individuals can also self-screen by paying attention to any changes in moles or the development of new moles. It’s difficult to fully check every part of the body on your own, so if you have a partner or friend who can help you out, that’s even better. You might even ask your barber or hairstylist to look for anything suspicious on the scalp, back of the neck, or ears.
A common myth is that people who are light-skinned are more prone to develop skin cancer. The truth is skin color does not matter. “If you have a suspicious area of the skin you didn't notice before, get it looked at,” urges Dr. Dev.
Biopsy and Treatment
The first step in identifying what type of skin cancer might be in play is a biopsy. This can be done in a dermatologist’s office; a simple procedure that involves a numbing medicine and taking a small sample. Results are typically available in three to seven days.
If any of the three types of skin cancer are detected, the next step is to excise the area. Just how much is excised depends on the type of cancer. If it requires deep and/or wide excision, a plastic surgeon may also get involved.
With melanoma, the chance for spread is of concern. “Melanoma is very notorious for spreading to the brain, the liver, the lungs, so we really have to be careful. The treatment is dictated by where it has spread,” explains Dr. Dev.
As with many other diseases, prevention is key in staving off skin cancer. Dr. Dev’s overall advice is to practice common sense.
“When you go out and it's very hot, what do you want? You want shade. That's also what your body wants. So, I always tell people, ‘Your skin needs shade.’ Whether it comes in the form of a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, or a nice dry pair of gloves, make sure to cover up.”
Of course, sunblock is also very important, as is avoiding the sun during its hottest hours. The nice thing about our modern times is that all of this advice and information is readily available online from trusted resources like the American Cancer Society, Skin Cancer Foundation, and even your local hospital.
“All the healthcare systems now have these types of things in play, and I think they should be utilized as reference tools more often,” shares Dr. Dev.