Skin Cancer: The Basics

Skin Cancer – the most common of all Cancers.

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What is it?

Skin cancer is the generic term given to any kind of cancerous multiplication of cells that develops within the skin. Often overlooked, the skin is essentially another organ of the body. Made up of several layers it plays an essential role in the body, protecting the underlying muscle tissue and bones.

Although there are many different types of cancer that can develop within the skin, the two most common types are basal cell skin cancer and squamous cell skin cancers – both of which occur withing the epidermis.


Basal cell skin cancer

The most commonly occurring type of skin cancer. Mostly affecting adults with fairer skin, they can crop anywhere on the body but are most often found in places that are exposed to the sun more – such as the face, head, neck and ears.

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Those most at risk of developing the condition are people who burn easily without tanning, people who work outside or live in sunny places and those who regularly use tanning beds.

Although they can vary in appearance by a great deal – BCCs are often first recognised as scabs that do not heal. They may appear as flat, scaly marks or protrude more from the skin in the form of lumps. Left to their own devices, these lumps can cause an ulcer which can disfigure the patient. BCC treatments included laser removal, surgical removal and photodynamic therapy.


Squamous Cell Skin Cancer

Squamous skin cancer grows much faster than Basal Cell Cancer. The people at risk of developing the disease fall into the same demographics as those at risk of BCC. Both diseases display relatively similar symptoms, with a few differences that define their treatment.

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Whereas basal cell cancers very rarely have the risk of infecting other parts of the body, squamous cancer cells have a higher chance of doing so.

Additionally, if these cells are allowed to spread around the body then the resulting symptoms can be serious and painful.


Stages of Skin Cancer

Staging is not often applied to cases of BCC as this rarely spreads to other parts of the body. Squamous Cancer cells, however, carry a greater chance of this occurring – because of this  the Doctor may sometimes use a scale to give the patient an idea of the progression of the disease.

Stage 0

Often referred to as Bowen’s disease or carcinoma situ. The cancer remains in an early stage and is not visible to the naked eye.

Stage 1

At the first stage of the disease, the cancer measures 2cm or under across and has 1 or less than one high risk features. These are as follow:

  • the cancer appears very abnormal under the microscope
  • the cancer starts on the ear or lip
  • the cancer has begun to grow into a space around a nerve
  • the cancer has developed into the lower dermis
  • the cancer has grown to be more than 2mm thick

Stage  2

The cancer is now larger than 2cm across and displays 2 or more of the aforementioned risk features.

Stage 3

This stage signifies that the cancer has spread to another part of the body. By this point the cancer has either grown into the bones of the face (such as the jaw or around the eye) or it has spread to a nearby lymph node (and is less than 3 cm across).

Stage 4

The final stage of skin cancer, the disease has now spread to the spine, ribs or skull. After spreading to a lymph node on the same side of the body.


Treatment

As with most cancers, the most common treatment is the use of surgery. Favoured earlier on, whilst the growths are still in their infancy, surgeons cut away the cancer and close the gap with stitches.

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For  more complex cancers, Mohs micrographic surgery is considered to be one of the most effective methods of isolating and removing the cancerous cells.

A technique developed in the 1930s, a microscope is used to inspect the skin close up, allowing surgeons to identify how much more skin needs to be removed.

In addition to these treatments, medical professionals could well recommend a number of alternatives such as: radiotherapy, vismodegib (a variant of chemotherapy), imiquimod cream and photodynamic therapy.

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