Skin Cancer

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The two most frequent types of skin cancer are Basal Cell Carcinomas and Squamous Cell Carcinoma (often grouped under “non-melanoma skin cancer”). The third most frequent skin cancer is Melanoma; this is a malignancy of the cells which give the skin its color (melanocytes). This is the deadliest form of skin cancer.  In addition there are a number of other, less common cancers starting in the skin including Merkel cell tumors, cutaneous lymphomas, and sarcomas (see the pages on sarcoma and lymphoma in this guide).

Melanoma is a malignancy of the skin in which melanocytes (the cells which give the skin its color) become cancerous. Melanoma occurs most frequently in white people, but does occur in people with dark skin; it is usually found in adults, though occasionally melanoma may develop in children and adolescents. Over exposure to sunlight can cause skin changes which can lead to melanoma. Half of all melanomas are thought to arise in a benign (non-cancerous) pigmented nevus (a mole). Moles are very common and normally change only slightly over time; however in melanoma there may be a more rapid increase in size – symptoms include a darker or variable discoloration, itching, and possibly ulceration and bleeding.  Early detection is critical with melanoma. 

Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, it occurs when basal cells (round cells found in the outer layer of skin) become cancerous. The second most common type of skin cancer is Squamous Cell Carcinoma; this is where squamous cells (the flat, scaly cells on the surface of the skin) become malignant. Cure rates are very high for both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. In addition there are a number of other, less common cancers starting in the skin including Merkel cell tumors and cutaneous lymphomas and sarcomas (see the sections on sarcoma and lymphoma for more information about these).


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