Skin cancer is generally separated into two main categories, melanoma and nonmelanoma. Melanoma is the most severe form of skin cancer. The nonmelanoma group encompasses all other skin cancers. The two most common forms of nonmelanoma skin cancer, squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma, are named for the squamous or basal cells which become cancerous.
The top layer of skin, the epidermis, is made up of basal and squamous cells. The surface of the skin is made of round, flat squamous cells, and below these are the basal cells. Hair follicles and sweat glands are in the dermis below the epidermis.
Treatment of basal or squamous cell carcinoma is usually very successful with no side effects if caught early enough. Since symptoms first appear on the skin, detection of skin cancer in its earliest stage of development is possible if you recognize it. These common cancers can be surgically removed if they have not advanced, making aggressive therapy unnecessary. The danger is in not recognizing the symptoms and not going to a doctor, or in contracting skin cancer in a place you wouldn’t normally see it and failing to find it before it metastasizes. To avoid this, you should do regular skin self-examinations, checking for any possible skin cancer symptoms. If you find a small lump, rash, or sore which does not heal, you should ask your doctor if it may be skin cancer.
Melanoma is named for the melanocyte cells which give pigment to the skin and can become cancerous. These cells are located between the dermis and epidermis, and can form benign growths known as nevi, or moles. This occurs when the melanocyte cells reproduce too fast or fail to die, and accumulate into harmless growths which do not spread like cancer does. Most people have between 10 and 40 moles throughout their skin, but having a significantly higher number of nevi is a risk factor for melanoma, as is having dysplastic, or irregularly shaped, nevi. If new moles form, or if changes occur in existing moles, especially dysplastic nevi, you should see a doctor because this may be a symptom of melanoma. Watch for any changes in the skin surrounding a mole, or in the size, shape, or color of the mole.
Generally, if you have a skin anomaly which may be skin cancer, your doctor will perform a biopsy. If the possible tumor can be conveniently removed, the doctor will remove it completely and test it for cancer. No further treatment may be necessary; if the cancer has progressed, you may need topical radiation or chemotherapy, the surgical removal of local lymph nodes, or more aggressive treatment if the cancer has metastasized. If it is not treated, wandering cancerous skin cells can travel through the body and create additional tumors in other organs or systems.
Any kind of skin cancer, squamous cell or basal cell carcinoma, or melanoma, should be treated as soon as it is discovered in order to prevent metastasis.