When it comes to skin cancer, the more you know, the better protected you can be. Spring, with all of its outdoor activities, is a great time to learn more about this all-too-common and often preventable form of cancer.
Identifying Skin Cancer
Early detection and treatment is key for melanoma. Sarah Cannon recommends regular full body skin self-exams and skin exams by your doctor starting at age 20. Performing a full-body skin self-exam each month will help you become familiar with your skin so that you can identify any skin changes that could signal skin cancer. You can download a body mole map from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) to learn how to examine your skin and what to look for. If you see anything unusual, a mole or spot that is growing, unusual, bleeding, or not like the others, see a dermatologist.
You can also get a free skin cancer screening through the AAD. The AAD offers free skin cancer screenings throughout the United States. You can sign up to be notified via email when the next free screening will take place in your area.
Three common skin cancer types
- Basal cell carcinoma - A slow-growing cancer in the layer just underneath the epidermis, or outer layer of the skin where the basal cells are located. Basal cell carcinoma seldom spreads to other parts of the body.
- Squamous cell carcinoma - Rarer than basal cell cancer, squamous cell carcinoma is in the epidermis. It spreads more often than basal cell carcinoma.
- Melanoma - The most serious type of skin cancer, it occurs when the melanocytes, the pigment cells in the lower part of the epidermis, become malignant, meaning that they start dividing uncontrollably. If it spreads to the lymph nodes, it may also reach other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs, or brain. In such cases, the disease is called metastatic melanoma.
Other types of skin cancer include Epithelioid sarcoma, Kaposi sarcoma, skin or cutaneous lymphomas, and Merkel cell carcinoma. Actinic keratosis is a precancerous skin lesion that can become a squamous cell cancer.
If you've been diagnosed with skin cancer, your doctor will most likely remove the tumor and some of the surrounding tissue via (surgical excision) or a special procedure called Mohs micrographic surgery. If you have melanoma, your doctor may perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) to help determine the stage.
Then, depending on the type of cancer, its stage, and other factors, your doctor may recommend additional treatment. This can include:
- Immunotherapy, which helps the patient's immune system fight the cancer. Recently, there have been exciting developments in immunotherapy for the treatment of skin cancer. In fact, in December 2021, the FDA approved pembrolizumab for adjuvant treatment of stage IIB or IIC melanoma following complete resection. In March 2022, the FDA approved fixed dose combination treatment with relatlimab plus nivolumab for unresectable or metastatic melanoma. Biologic therapy is a type of immunotherapy that may also be used to treat skin cancer.
- Depending on the type of skin cancer you have, you might be a candidate for participation in a clinical trial. Go to ClinicalTrials.gov and type in "skin cancer" in the Search for Studies box to learn what trials are actively recruiting and search for trials at Sarah Cannon Research Institute.
- Radiation therapy, using radiation that kill the cancer cells (and some normal cells)
- Photodynamic therapy (PDT), using a drug and type of laser light to kill cancer cells
- Lymphadenectomy, which surgically removes lymph nodes
- Targeted therapy, using drugs that block specific “on switches” driving cancer growth
- Adoptive T-cell therapy, using T-cells from the patient to fight the cancer
- Chemotherapy, using drugs to kill or slow down the cancer cell growth
If you have been diagnosed with skin cancer, follow your doctor's recommendations for regular check-ups. This will help ensure that any new cases of skin cancer, or a recurrence of one that has been treated, is caught early enough.
If you have questions about types and screening recommendations for skin cancer, call askSARAH at (844) 482-4812 to speak to a nurse who is specially-trained to help with your cancer questions or visit askSARAH online.
It is important to know that the information in this post, including Sarah Cannon’s recommendations for screening, is accurate as of the publishing date.