Unraveling Skin Cancer Types: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

By: Dr. Mariano Busso


Skin cancer is a pressing concern affecting countless lives across the United States. In this comprehensive guide, we'll delve into three prominent types of skin cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC), and Melanoma. As a board-certified dermatologist, it is important to shed light onto these skin cancer varieties, their origins, risk factors, early detection methods, and treatment approaches. Let's embark on a journey to empower you with crucial knowledge that can make a significant impact on your skin health.

Basal Cell Carcinoma: Unmasking the Basics 

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) emerges from the skin's deepest layer, known as the basal cell layer. It is triggered by DNA mutations resulting from exposure to UV light radiation. It is important understanding BCC, given its prevalence as the most common form of cancer.

Prevalence and Risk Factors: 

Astonishingly, BCC affects approximately two million Americans annually, magnifying its ubiquity. The most significant risk factor arises from skin that has been harmed by UV radiation, whether through sun exposure or indoor tanning. Coupled with this, factors such as fair complexion, light eyes or hair, a history of skin cancer, and residence in sun-drenched regions like Florida and California amplify the risk spectrum. Additional factors that contribute to the risk include a compromised immune system, exposure to arsenic-contaminated water, a history of radiation treatment for acne, undergoing kidney dialysis, and receiving PUVA therapy.

Advanced Diagnosis and Treatment: 

A skin biopsy performed at the dermatologist's office is key for accurate diagnosis. Most BCC cases are successfully treated when detected early. Treatment options are frequently administered within the office, encompassing prescription topical medications, scraping, or surgical excision procedures. Advanced cases that involve deeper structures or the spread to other organs may necessitate radiation, extensive surgery, or chemotherapy.

Promising Outlook: 

The majority of basal cell carcinomas are identified and treated at an early stage, resulting in complete recovery. While uncommon, if left untreated and allowed to grow for an extended period, it has the potential to infiltrate deeply, affecting nerves, bones, or metastasizing to other organs.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Decoding the Second Most Common Cancer 

Squamous cells are present in the linings of various organs within the human body, including the skin, lungs, throat, and mouth. In the context of the skin, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) originates from the outermost layers and is the second most prevalent skin cancer.

Incidence and Risk Factors: 

Approximately 1.8 million Americans are diagnosed with SCC annually. UV light damage plays a pivotal role as a primary risk factor. UV-induced precancerous lesions, like actinic keratosis, can transform into SCC. Individuals with fair skin, along with features like light eyes, blonde or red hair, a history of sunburns, weakened immunity, reside in sunny states such as Florida or California, and contain specific HPV strains, are at a heightened risk.

Diagnosis and Treatment: 

Diagnosis through a skin biopsy at the dermatologist's office is a crucial step in managing SCC. The majority of treatments take place within the office and encompass a spectrum of options, including the prescription of topical medications, scraping, or minor surgical procedures. In cases where the condition has progressed, affecting deeper layers or spreading to other organs, more intensive approaches like radiation, extensive surgery, or chemotherapy may be employed.

Optimistic Outcome: 

SCC cases detected early can have a positive prognosis. Nonetheless, there is a sobering statistic of SCC-related fatalities. Although this type of skin cancer is highly curable, 15,0000 Americans die every year from invasive SCCs, which is why vigilance and timely intervention is critical.

Melanoma: Unveiling a Complex Challenge 

Melanoma is a formidable skin cancer that can spread to other organs. It stems from melanocytes, which are the cells responsible for generating skin pigment.

Incidence and Risk Factors: 

Melanoma's impact is significant, with around 200,000 Americans diagnosed annually. There is a heightened risk associated with excessive sun exposure, incidents of sunburn during childhood or adolescence, use of tanning beds, possession of fair skin, light eyes, blonde or red hair, a personal or family history of melanoma, as well as an individual's possession of more than 50 moles.

Diagnosis and Treatment: 

Early diagnosis of Melanoma is paramount. It is important to note the "ABCDE" rule to detect melanoma:   

  • Asymmetry  
  • Irregular Borders  
  • Different Colors  
  • Diameter over 6 mm, and   
  • Evolution

Readers should seek professional evaluation for any mole exhibiting these characteristics. Surgical removal is curative for many in-situ Melanoma cases, while advanced cases require additional measures.

Encouraging Progress: 

Among the 200,000 annual diagnoses of melanoma in the United States, approximately half are characterized as "in-situ" melanoma. This term indicates that upon surgical removal, there exists no further risk of metastasis to other organs. Nonetheless, it remains concerning that melanoma claims the lives of 7650 Americans each year.

Recognizing Potential Skin Cancer Signs 

It is important to seek expert guidance if a skin lesion undergoes size, color, or shape changes or starts bleeding.

Identifying Irregularities: When to Act 

As previously mentioned, readers should watch out for skin irregularities that follow the characteristics underlined by the ABCDE rule. These irregularities can exhibit Asymmetry, Irregular Borders, Different Colors, Diameter exceeding 6 mm, or Evolution.

Early Detection: A Key to Successful Treatment 

The positive aspect is that skin cancer is visible, and the majority of cases are non-life-threatening. When detected early, they are highly treatable and completely manageable. "Early" is defined as when the cancer measures under 6 mm in diameter, typically indicating limited depth and minimal potential for spread.

As we conclude this insightful journey, I hope readers are able to make more informed choices for skin health. With this newfound knowledge about Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and Melanoma, readers should feel encouraged to prioritize early detection and adopt proactive measures. It is important to remember the role of regular check-ups, sun protection, and timely intervention in safeguarding against the impact of skin cancer. With a focus on awareness and vigilance, you hold the key to a healthier future for your skin.

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.