Skin Cancer

What is Skin Cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), each year, about a million people in the United States learn that they have skin cancer. The skin weighs approximately 6 pounds and is the body’s largest organ. It’s comprised of two main layers: the outer epidermis and the inner dermis.

The epidermis (outer layer of the skin) is mostly made up of flat, scale-like cells called squamous cells. Under the squamous cells are round cells called basal cells.

Types of Skin Cancer

It’s important that skin cancers be found and treated early because they can invade and destroy nearby tissue. The two most common kinds of skin cancer are:

  • Basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma accounts for more than 90 percent of all skin cancers in the United States. It’s a slow-growing cancer that doesn’t usually spread to other parts of the body.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This disease also rarely spreads, but it does so more often than basal cell carcinoma.

Another type of cancer that occurs in the skin is melanoma, which begins in the melanocytes.

Risk Factors of Skin Cancer

Although anyone can get skin cancer, the risk is greatest for people who have fair skin that freckles easily — often those with red or blond hair and blue or light-colored eyes.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the main risk factor for skin cancer. Experts believe that melanoma is related to an increase in the amount of time people spend in the sun. UV radiation from the sun causes skin damage that can lead to melanoma. There are two types of UV radiation:

  • UVA
  • UVB

Sunlamps and tanning booths can also cause skin damage and an increased risk of melanoma. To help prevent and reduce your risk of melanoma caused by UV radiation, avoid exposure to the midday sun (from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and wear sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF). You should also wear sunglasses with UV protective lenses. The label should state that the glasses block 99 percent of UVA and UVB radiation.

People who have had one or more severe, blistering sunburns as a child or teenager are at increased risk for skin cancer. Sunburns in adulthood are also a risk factor for skin cancer.

Common Symptoms of Skin Cancer

Even though skin cancer may occur anywhere on the body, both basal and squamous cell cancers are found mainly on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun, including the:

  • Head
  • Face
  • Neck
  • Hands
  • Arms

Diagnosing Skin Cancer

If your doctor suspects that a spot or lump on your skin is cancerous, you will need to have a biopsy. In addition, your doctor may order any of the following tests to further diagnose the condition:

Treatment Options for Skin Cancer

Treatment for skin cancer usually involves some type of surgery. Types of surgery include:

Your treatment plan will depend upon the type and stage of skin cancer. Below are the most common treatment options for skin cancer. In some cases, doctors use a combination of these methods.

Information about…Our services
SurgerySurgical Oncology
Radiation TherapyRadiation Oncology

Additional Resources

The most common symptoms of skin cancer are:

  • New growths or sores that don’t heal
  • Small, smooth, shiny, pale or waxy lumps
  • Firm red lumps
  • Lumps that bleed or develop a crust
  • Flat, red spots that are rough, dry or scaly

The NCI offers a simple guide called How To Do a Skin Self-Exam to help you examine your skin more regularly.

Find out about our clinical trials for:

Skin Cancer

National cancer clinical trials


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Mark H. Goldgeier M.D.

Surgical Oncologists

Timothy Doerr M.D.

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Luke Schoeniger M.D., Ph.D.

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