Spotting Skin Cancer

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Skin cancer is the unmanageable growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis, the skins’ surface layer. Mutations in DNA lead skin cells to quickly multiply and form malignant groups of tissue, creating tumors within the skin. While skin cancer is a relatively common illness, it has the potential to be deadly, especially when left undetected. Overall, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the United States than all other cancers combined, yet nearly two people die of the disease every hour. The only way to detect skin cancer is through examination of the skin, so it is essential to recognize the warning signs. Symptoms of skin cancer are best defined by the “ABCDE” acronym: asymmetrical border, color, diameter, and evolving. If a spot or mole on the skin is asymmetrical, has a jagged or irregular border, is uneven in color, is larger than the size of a pea, or has changed in the past weeks, skin cancer could be a possible reason. The primary causes of skin cancer are twofold: the ultraviolet rays from the sun and artificial, ultraviolet tanning beds.

The main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma. Skin cancers are differentiated by the type of skin cells affected. In BCC, the skin’s basal cells are affected, while in SCC, the skin’s squamous cells are affected. Finally, melanoma develops from the melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin pigment. When not detected and treated early, all types of skin cancer have the potential to metastasize or spread to other tissues in the body. Melanoma specifically is the most aggressive form of skin cancer, and can be curable when treated early, but is expected to cause over 7,000 deaths in 2022.

Although skin cancer treatment varies depending on the type of skin cancer diagnosed, there are universal treatments for skin cancer that span multiple diagnoses. First, some small, early detected skin cancers can be destroyed by freezing them off with liquid nitrogen (cryosurgery). Second, excisional surgery can be an appropriate treatment for any type of skin cancer at any stage. In this procedure, a doctor will excise or cut out the cancerous tissue and the surrounding healthy skin. Third, curettage and electrodesiccation therapy scrapes away layers of cancer cells using a curette device. This is a simple procedure normally used to treat basal cell cancers or thin squamous cell cancers. Finally, radiation and chemotherapy are standard cancer treatments typically used in more malignant types of skin cancer. If the skin cancer cannot be removed completely through surgery or has spread to other areas of the body, these methods may be resorted to.

Skin cancer is a prolific and relentless disease with nearly 1 in 5 Americans developing skin cancer by the age of 70. Fortunately, most cases are curable when diagnosed and treated in a timely manner: localized skin cancer diagnoses have a 99% survival rate. Further, skin cancer can be prevented in a variety of different ways, namely protecting oneself from UV rays by avoiding tanning beds, applying sunscreen, and wearing clothes that cover the limbs when in direct sunlight. Finally, with advances in immunotherapy, oncolytic therapies, and pending research into skin cancer cell inhibitors, there is hope for better treatment and prevention of skin cancer in the near future.