Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer refers to cancer that develops in one of the tissues of the skin. It is becoming more common as the effects of years of sun exposure begin to show. Some types of skin cancer are, at most, a minor problem. Other skin cancers are life-threatening conditions. Getting a regular annual check-up by a healthcare professional, and being alert to any skin changes, are the best ways of keeping your skin and yourself healthy.
What is not skin cancer?
There are two common types of skin lesions (patches of diseased or damaged skin) in older adults which are not skin cancer. The first is actinic keratosis. Actinic keratosis is often found on skin that is exposed to the sun. This is most common in light-skinned people, especially those who have outdoor occupations or hobbies. There are usually multiple lesions that primarily affect the face, bald scalps, backs of hands and forearms, and sometimes the upper torso.
The second type of skin lesion that is not cancer is seborrheic keratosis. These lesions start to appear when people enter their 50’s, and gradually increase in number. The lesions look like superficial, stuck-on, dark brown growths, and are usually found on the torso and face.
The Most Common Types of Skin Cancer
The three types of skin cancer that are most often encountered are:
- Basal cell carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer of any type in the United States. It is rarely fatal. It is a type of cancer that starts in the outer layer of the skin (epidermis). In most cases, it grows slowly in its original location, and does not spread (metastasize) to other parts of your body. It must be treated because it can eventually destroy underlying tissues and bone if it is not removed. Three subtypes of basal cell carcinoma that are often seen include nodular, superficial, and pigmented (which can be confused with melanoma).
Squamous Cell Cancer
Squamous cell cancer is the second most frequently occurring skin cancer. It develops from the flat squamous cells on the surface of the skin, and is most likely to show up in skin areas that have been regularly exposed to the sun for long periods of time. It may also develop in wounds that take an abnormally long time to heal, and in scars caused by burns or radiation. This type of skin cancer is more invasive and destructive than basal cell skin cancer. Its tendency to spread to other parts of the body is low, but the risk is higher than with the basal cell type.
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, with the greatest risk of spreading to other parts of the body. Melanomas begin in melanocytes, the specialized cells in your skin that produce melanin (a skin pigment). A melanoma is likely to spread to other areas of the skin, as well as to the brain, lungs, and intestines. This type of cancer is difficult to treat in later stages. If caught early, however, 97% of melanomas can be cured.
There are four types of melanoma:
- Lentigo maligna
- Superficial spreading
- Acral lentiginous
How Common is Skin Cancer?
The rate of skin cancer has risen in the United States over the last several decades, most likely because of the thinning ozone layer and the popularity of sun-bathing and tropical vacations. Annually, more than 2 million cases of all types of skin cancer are identified in this country. Nine out of ten skin cancers belong to the basal cell type.
Some people are diagnosed with skin cancer more than once in their lives. About half of all Americans will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before they reach the age of 65.
Updated: March 2017
Posted: March 2012