According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer that occurs in the U.S., and more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all the other forms of cancer combined. The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma, and an estimated 4.3 million people are newly diagnosed with this form of cancer every year. Approximately 20 percent of all people will be diagnosed with a form of skin cancer by the time they reach age 70.
Being diagnosed with skin cancer can be devastating. People may have to undergo surgeries and treatments that can have a physical and emotional impact. People who have cancer may also become fearful of going outside and develop anxiety or depression. Finally, some people may die of skin cancer, devastating the lives of their loved ones.
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer occurs when skin cells grow abnormally. The abnormal cells divide rapidly because of a mutation of the DNA. The mutation is often the result of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from working outdoors, tanning outside, or using tanning beds. The mutated cells divide rapidly and can form malignant tumors, which can spread to other parts of the body.
The American Academy of Dermatology reports that there are several different types of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinomas are cancers that occur in the basal skin cells. They frequently occur in fair-skinned people and frequently appear on the arms, neck, or head. However, they may appear anywhere on the body.
Squamous cell carcinoma is another form of skin cancer that affects the squamous skin cells. It can occur in people with darker skin, but it most frequently occurs in people who have fair skin. It is the second most common form of cancer behind basal cell carcinoma. The final common form of skin cancer, melanoma, is also the most serious. It is vital for people who have melanoma to get diagnosed and treated early.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of skin cancer will vary depending on the type of cancer and its location. Some of the signs that you might see include the following symptoms:
- Changes in moles
- New dark spots that form
- Asymmetrical moles
- Scaly patches
- Pearly bumps or pink patches that form
- Sores that heal and reopen
If you notice any changes in your skin or develop odd patches or lesions, it is important for you to see your doctor promptly.
Common Treatment Options
The treatment options for skin cancer will depend on the stage of the cancer, its type, your general health, and the location of the tumor. The National Cancer Institute reports that there are six standard medical treatments that might be used, including the following:
- Radiation treatment
- Targeted therapy
- Biologic therapy
- Photodynamic therapy
Surgical treatments may include an excision of the tumor. The doctor may also opt to use cryosurgery to freeze and kill the cancer cells before removal. Electrodesiccation and curettage may be used, and micrographic surgery may also be a surgical method.
If chemotherapy is used, it may be topical and applied directly to the cancerous growths or intravenous if the cancer has metastasized.
A common type of biologic therapy that may be used to treat skin cancer is imiquimod. This treatment works by stimulating your immune system to fight the cancer cells but does not affect the cancer cells directly.
Targeted therapies are treatments that affect the molecules that are involved in the growth of tumors and may also be used to treat your skin cancer.
There are some alternative or complementary therapies that you might use in addition to your medical treatment regimen. It is important that you follow your doctor’s recommendations and use alternative therapies to complement your treatment rather than to replace it. Any alternative treatment that you want to try should be discussed with your doctor.
Mind-body practices such as yoga, acupuncture, and massage may help you while you are undergoing treatment for your skin cancer. These practices may help you to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that you feel.
One study found that taking nicotinamide supplements, which are a form of vitamin B3, may help to reduce your risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancers. Before you take any supplements, you should talk to your doctor to make certain that they will not interact with the medications that you are prescribed.
The Skin Cancer Foundation also reports that your diet is important in addition to wearing sunscreen whenever you are outdoors. You should strive to eat a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants. These include citrus fruits that contain vitamin C, foods such as carrots and pumpkins that are rich sources of vitamins A and beta-carotene and a variety of leafy green vegetables. Other foods that are good for your skin include foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids such as fish. One study found that consuming caffeine from coffee and tea is linked to lower rates of certain types of skin cancer. You should additionally consume healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
There are also some types of food that you should avoid. You should not eat foods that contain a lot of saturated fats such as fried foods and fatty red meats. Foods that contain a lot of sugar should also be avoided, and your carbohydrate intake should be limited to complex carbohydrates such as whole grains.
The prognosis for skin cancer depends on the type that you have and its stage. In general, people who are diagnosed with squamous cell or basal cell carcinomas enjoy good prognoses. Melanoma is a much more serious diagnosis as it affects the melanocytes in the deeper layers of your skin. If you have this type of cancer, your prognosis will depend on how early it is caught. If your melanoma is caught early, the five-year survival rate is 99 percent. If the melanoma has spread to your lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is 63 percent. If the melanoma has spread to other areas of your body, the five-year survival rate is 20 percent.
There are several new treatments that might be available in the future and are undergoing clinical trials. These include targeted therapies such as nilotinib, which targets a cell receptor that is involved in some types of melanoma. Another targeted therapy combines two drugs called encorafenib and binimetinib, which work together to block certain proteins that are needed for melanoma tumors to grow. People who are interested in participating in a clinical trial may want to talk to their doctors to decide if doing so is right for them.
It can be frightening to receive a diagnosis of skin cancer. Fortunately, most types of skin cancer respond to treatment very well. It is important for you to see your doctor if you see any signs that you might have skin cancer. Getting diagnosed early is important.