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Skin Cancer – A Comprehensive Guide: Causes, Risks, Types, Symptoms, Stages, Treatments, And Side Effects

Most forms of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous carcinoma, require some sort of dermatologic treatment. Depending on the level and spread of the skin cancer, the patient may need topical treatment or investigative surgery, both of which treatments are offered by qualified dermatologists. However, more aggressive skin cancers, like melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma, may require more intensive treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and more. Keep reading to dive into what causes skin cancer, what factors play into a person’s risk of developing skin cancer, the signs and symptoms of various forms of skin cancer, and treatment options for patients with various skin cancer conditions.


What is skin cancer?

In summary, skin cancer is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the skin. The skin is one of the most vital organs in our bodies–which is why protecting it is so crucial. Skin is what protects our bodies and other organs from sun damage and infections. Skin also helps the body regulate its temperature as well as store fluids, fat, and vitamin D. The skin is divided into several layers, but the two main layers are the epidermis and dermis. Skin cancer begins in the epidermis–the outer layer of the skin–and can spread to deeper layers if not treated. Skin cancer can be found in any area of the skin.

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

It is possible for anyone to develop skin cancer, regardless of their medical background or exposure to sunlight. However, there are certain conditions and physical traits that increase a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. Some of these physical traits include blond or red hair, lighter skin tones, skin that burns or freckles easily, and blue or green eyes. Other risk factors include a family history of skin cancer, old age, residence in bright, sunny areas, and a tendency to spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun. As implied, most skin cancers and skin damage in general are caused by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light–the light emitted by the sun. That said, individuals who are normally sheltered from the sun can still develop skin cancer because of exposure to dangerous substances, a weakened immune system, or an infection.

What are the different types of skin cancer?

There are four main types of skin cancer, with various subcategories in each group. The four most common types of skin cancer are:

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • merkel cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

What are the signs and symptoms of skin cancer?

One of the most common signs and symptoms of skin cancer is red or purple patches on the surface of the skin. This is an especially common symptom of Kaposi sarcoma, a type of skin cancer that develops in the mucous membranes around the gastrointestinal tract. This type of skin cancer usually ails individuals with immune system deficiencies or those who have undergone surgical transplantation.

Some of the warning signs to look out for that could indicate an increased risk of skin cancer include the following:

  • abnormally large moles that grow or change shape
  • vision problems or blurry vision
  • itchy or painful areas of the skin
  • patches of skin that change color
  • a rough or scaly patch of skin
  • a sore that doesn’t heal and develops a crust
  • a skin growth similar to a wart or scar
  • dark lesions on the skin

How is skin cancer diagnosed?

Skin cancer is typically diagnosed when a patient, doctor, or dermatologist notices abnormal patches of skin or skin growths during a checkup or at home. After these abnormalities have been acknowledged, the doctor will work with the patient to locate any other aberrations on the skin and write a detailed report on their findings. After these topical evaluations, the doctor will move on to more detailed examinations to determine if the abnormal basal or squamous cells indicate skin cancer and, if they do, the severity of the skin cancer.

What tests are done to diagnose skin cancer?

If a doctor believes their patient has skin cancer, they will perform some sort of examination or examinations, which may include a biopsy. A biopsy involves removing a section of the skin and transporting it to an examination lab, where it will be examined under a microscope in order to determine the exact type and severity of the skin cancer.

What are the five stages of skin cancer?

All cases of skin cancer are different and follow different patterns of spread and severity; however, medical professionals have categorized various types of skin cancer into stages based on how much the skin cancer cells may have spread in order to determine the best possible treatment options for patients. Below are the five stages of skin cancer as defined by medical professionals in terms of melanoma skin cancer.

Stage 0 Melanoma (In Situ)

In Stage 0, abnormal cells appear on the outer layer of the skin–the epidermis. During this stage, there is no evidence that cancerous skin cells may have spread throughout the body or traveled deeper into the skin.

Stage I Melanoma (Localized Tumor)

In Stage I, the cancer cells have accumulated, and the tumor or tumors have reached a size of up to two millimeters.

Stage II Melanoma (Localized Tumor)

In Stage II, the melanoma cancer cells have spread to a deeper layer of the skin–the dermis. The cancer has not yet spread to any lymph nodes.

Stage III Melanoma (Regional Spread)

In Stage III, the cancer has spread to one or more nearby lymph nodes, but it has not yet reached any distant sites.

Stage IV Melanoma (Metastasis)

In Stage IV, the cancer cells have spread beyond the origin of the disease to areas such as distant lymph nodes, bones, the lungs, the liver, the brain, or the intestines. At this point, the five-year survival rate for patients is between fifteen and twenty percent.

What is it like living with skin cancer?

A skin cancer diagnosis can be life-changing, especially a late-stage diagnosis. Patients may feel overwhelmed and experience anxiety or depression. Skin cancer patients should seek out mental health treatment as well as cancer treatment if they are feeling discouraged in order to manage their emotional symptoms.

What are the most common treatments for skin cancer?


Surgery cures most types of skin cancer. Patients with basal cells or other types of skin cancer are often treated by specialized dermatologists. Surgery as a treatment method is used to remove the cancer cells and the skin around them, called the margins. Some of the most common types of surgeries for skin cancer include Mohs surgery, which removes each layer from the skin and examines it until it is impossible to find cancer cells; cryoscopy, during which cancer cells freeze in water; laser surgery, where laser beams are used to skill skin cancers; as well as vivo excision, micro-microscopy, and curettage.

Topical Treatments

Sometimes, non-surgical treatments are available for the remission or removal of cutaneous cancer cells. Topical treatments can be combined with other treatments or used alone for the treatment of noncancer or pre-cancer lesions.

External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT)

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) directs radioactive radiation into tumor cells inside the body. Unlike conventional therapy, it can be used to remove tumors or destroy cancer cells.

Photodynamic Therapy

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a cancer treatment that uses drugs and certain types of light to kill cancer cells. The drugs used are inactive until exposed to light, and this light is shined on certain areas of the skin with cancer cells, which activates the drug and destroys the cancer cells surrounding healthy skin.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapies are a kind of treatment to treat cancer that uses drugs and other substances to detect and destroy specific tumors.

Are there clinical trials available for skin cancer treatment?

For patients who do not see improvement with traditional skin cancer treatment, clinical trials are available. Clinical trials are studies that aim to improve treatment for cancer or gain knowledge regarding treatments. Before participating in a clinical trial, patients should take note of the potential benefits and risks that come with participating. They should also consider any allergies and any family medical history. Clinical studies are an important step in the cancer investigation. Clinical studies are conducted to determine if new treatments can improve or reduce cancer risk. Many modern standard cancer treatment methods were developed from earlier clinical trials. Patients undergoing trials can be treated using standard treatment or may be asked to participate in a new treatment program. Participants in clinical trials are a major factor in determining and developing new cancer treatments.

When can a patient enter a clinical trial for skin cancer treatment?

Some clinical trials for skin cancer involve patients who have not yet been treated. Other trials evaluate patients who have undergone cancer treatment and have not seen improvement. Clinical trial tests have also been conducted to see how various treatments can prevent cancer from recurring. Clinical trial work used to treat skin cancer is available in most countries and states.

What are the side effects of skin cancer treatment?

Some of the side effects of skin cancer treatment include painful sores, dry or itchy skin, red or darkened skin tone, hypersensitivity to sunlight, rashes, swelling, fatigue, exhaustion, headaches, and diarrhea. The side effects a patient experiences depend on the type of skin cancer and the type of treatment.

Can you be cured of skin cancer?

Depending on the severity and type of skin cancer, most skin lesions and cancers can be cured. The faster the skin cancer or tumor is identified, the better the chances of recovery. That said, a patient should remain in contact with their doctor even after recovery in order to ensure that nothing was missed and that the cancer does not come back.

What is the survival rate of skin cancer?

Most people with cancer will be cured within two years of the diagnosis. Ninety-nine percent of skin cancer patients whose cancers are identified in stages 0, 1, or 2 will survive their cancer and live to see it cured. Sixty-eight percent of skin cancer patients whose cancers are identified in stage 3 will survive their cancer. If the cancer is discovered in stage 4, the survival rate decreases to about thirty percent.