The term “skin cancer” refers to any cancer that begins in your skin. Skin cancer may develop on any part of your skin, but it can spread to nearby tissue and organs in advanced stages.
There are two main types of skin cancer. The first type is called keratinocyte cancer, which develops in the skin cells called keratinocytes. This skin cancer has two main subtypes: basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).
The second main type of skin cancer is melanoma. Melanoma cancer develops in the skin’s melanocyte cells. Melanocytes are the skin cells that generate skin’s brown pigment.
Other types, which count for less than one percent of all skin cancers, include:
- Merkel cell carcinoma
- Kaposi’s sarcoma
- cutaneous (skin) lymphoma
- skin adnexal tumors
- other types of sarcomas
Frequency of Types
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. New cases of skin cancer outnumber new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer every year.
On a single person, each skin cancer is considered a unique case if a doctor believes it’s a separate cancer. One person may have multiple different types — and cases — of skin cancer. More than two million Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in a year, but more than 3.5 million cases of BCC or SCC will be diagnosed. As these numbers might suggest, having one skin cancer diagnosis puts you at a higher risk for having another.
Basil cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It’s estimated that 2.8 million cases of BCC are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. BCC most frequently develops on the neck, back, face, scalp, hands, and arms. That’s because these areas are exposed to the sun most frequently. However, BCC can develop in places that don’t get a lot of sun.
Squamous cell carcinoma is also very common. Around 700,000 cases of SCC are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. It most commonly appears on areas of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun. SCC, like BCC, may also develop in places that don’t get a lot of sun exposure. For example, SCC can develop on the genitals, inside the mouth, and on the lip.
Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, develops in the same skin cells that create moles. Melanoma is particularly dangerous because it can look like a harmless mole when it first develops. Fewer people develop melanoma than BCC or SCC. In 2014, melanoma will account for 76,000 cases of skin cancer. More men are diagnosed with melanoma than women. In 2010, 35,248 men and 25,813 women were diagnosed with the deadly skin cancer.
A third, less common type of skin cancer is also possible. Most people associate skin cancer with big, red bumps or brown spots, but actinic keratosis (AK) looks like neither. AKs are rough, dry, scaly patches that develop on skin that has seen a lot of sun exposure. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays damage and destroy delicate skin. Over time, an AK will form. More than 58 million Americans have actinic keratosis.
The older you get, the higher your chance for developing skin cancer. By the time they are 65, about half of all Americans will develop either BCC or SCC at least once.
You might guess that cases of skin cancer are highest in the sunniest states, but that is not true. The states known for their sunny beaches and year-round tropical climates aren’t necessarily home to the most skin cancer cases. In fact, California and Florida have fewer cases per 100,000 people than cooler climate states like Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
States with the fewest cases of skin cancer are: Alaska, Arizona, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia.
States with the most cases include: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming.
Long-term exposure to the sun’s UV rays increases a person’s chances of being diagnosed with skin cancer. It makes sense then that people over 50 years old, especially men, are more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer than any other age demographic.
Men are two times more likely to develop melanoma than women after the age of 60. After age 80, men are three times more likely to develop melanoma. Before 60, however, the statistic is reversed. Women are nearly twice as likely to develop melanoma before their 60th birthday.
Younger Americans are rewriting the skin cancer rules. In the U.S., cases of BCC and SCC among men and women under the age of 40 are increasing. Even incidences in children are increasing.
Melanoma is the most common form of cancer in people ages 25 to 29.
Caucasians are more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer. Nine out of 10 melanoma cases occur in non-Latino whites. Additionally, a Caucasian is 24 times more likely to develop melanoma than an African American.
However, skin cancer is more deadly when it occurs in African Americans. The five-year survival rate for Caucasians with skin cancer is 91 percent. That compares to a 77 percent five-year survival rate for African Americans with skin cancer. African Americans are also more likely to receive a diagnosis for melanoma after the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage.
Unfortunately, skin cancers in Asians, African Americans, Indonesians, Filipinos, and native Hawaiians may be harder to diagnose because they often develop in areas of the skin that are not directly exposed to sun. As much as 60 to 75 percent of skin cancer tumors in these populations develop on the soles of feet, palms of hands, mucous membranes, and around finger nails.
Basil cell carcinoma is the most common cancer in:
Squamous cell carcinoma is most common in:
- African Americans
- Asian Indians
Until they’re 40, women have a higher risk for developing melanoma than men. In fact, up until the age of 40, women have a higher probability of developing melanoma than every other cancer except breast cancer.
After the age of 50, however, men are more likely to develop melanoma than women. Over an entire lifetime, one in 34 men will be diagnosed with melanoma while only one in 53 women will be.
The older a man gets, the higher his risk becomes. The single largest group of people diagnosed with melanoma is white men over the age of 50. Since 1975, white men over 65 years old experienced a five percent increase in melanoma incidence each year.
When it comes to melanoma, the statistics are not in the favor of men ages 15 to 39. Young men account for less than half of all melanoma cases, but they comprise more than 60 percent of melanoma deaths.
Skin. Your skin color impacts your risk for developing skin cancer. Non-Latino Caucasians have the highest risk of developing skin cancer. People who have a greater number of moles are more likely to get skin cancer, too. The risk is even higher if the non-Latino Caucasian has moles and has fair skin with either blonde or red hair and either blue, green, or gray eyes. People with freckles are also more likely to have fair skin that burns easily, which increases their skin cancer risk.
History of Sunburn. Too much UV exposure can burn your skin. A history of sunburns, especially burns that lead to blisters, will increase your risk of skin cancer, including melanoma.
Family. Having a family member with skin cancer means you’re at a higher risk for skin cancer. The risk is especially strong if a close relative, such as a parent, sibling, or child, has skin cancer.
Health History. Certain events can increase your risk for getting skin cancer. These include an exposure to certain chemicals, such as arsenic, industrial pollution, and coal. Having an autoimmune disease, such as lupus, increases your risk. So does having an organ transplant.
Tobacco Use. People who smoke or using chewing tobacco have a higher chance of being diagnosed with SCC in the mouth or throat.
History of Skin Cancer. Once you’ve been had one skin cancer, your risks for developing another increase. This is especially true if you had melanoma.
Altitude. Where you live, or the elevation where you live, can affect your risk of skin cancer. People who live or vacation at high altitudes are more likely to develop skin cancer because UV rays are more powerful at higher altitudes.
Medication. Certain medicines, such as immunosuppressants, can increase your risk for skin cancer if you take them long term.
Risk Factors Ratio
Twenty percent of Americans will develop and be diagnosed with skin cancer during their lifetime.
Symptoms of skin cancer can be easily confused — and are often overlooked — if you have a history of non-cancerous moles, freckles, or growths. However, any change on your skin could be a potential cancer, so knowing the additional symptoms will help you know whether you’re in the clear or need to book an appointment.
The following changes in skin may signal you have skin cancer:
- bleeding or oozing from a skin spot
- a sore that doesn’t heal in a normal timeframe
- spreading pigment
- a mole with irregular borders
- sudden tenderness, itchiness, or pain
- a noticeable, fast-growing spot
The goal of any skin cancer treatment is to remove the cancer before it has a chance to spread. If the skin cancer has spread to nearby tissue or organs, treating the cancer becomes more difficult. If it hasn’t spread, however, treating skin cancer is often very successful.
Surgery. Surgically removing the cancerous spot is a common option. In some cases, the spot can be removed easily in a doctor’s office. More advanced cases may require in-depth surgery.
Cryosurgery. This type of surgery freezes the affected skin. The procedure kills the cells, and over time, the dead skin cells fall off.
Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy uses a person’s immune system to target and destroy cancer. In the case of skin cancer, a patient applies a medicated cream to the cancerous area, and the immune system works to destroy the cancer.
Chemotherapy. If skin cancer has progressed beyond your skin, chemotherapy can help target and kill any cancer cells surgery cannot remove. Chemotherapy comes in several forms, including oral medicine, injected shots, and IV infusions. It can even be applied to the skin.
Radiation therapy. Radiation seeks out and destroys cancer cells. Radiation is used to treat a larger area, or an area that is too difficult to treat with surgery.
Photodynamic therapy. In this type of therapy, a chemical is applied to the skin cancer. After staying on the skin for many hours, the skin is exposed to a special light, destroying the cancer cells.
You don’t have to avoid the sun in an effort to avoid skin cancer. Learn to be sun smart so you don’t have to face a scary skin cancer diagnosis in the future.
Avoid. Keep out of the sun when the UV rays are strongest. This happens between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Seek shade. If you have to be outside during the sun’s strongest hours, try to stay in the shade.
Slather on ’screen. No matter the time of day, you should apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin. Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Higher is better. Don’t put it on while you’re outside either. Your skin needs time to absorb the sunscreen, so it’s best to apply it at least 30 minutes before you head out the door.
Don’t forget to reapply. Add another layer of sunscreen to your skin every two hours. If you’re sweating heavily, swimming, or getting wet, you may need to reapply more frequently.
Wear a hat. Sunscreen on your scalp, face, and neck is more likely to wear off if you’re sweating, so add an extra layer of sun protection with a hat. Wide-brimmed hats are preferable, but a baseball cap is okay if you apply extra sunscreen to your ears and neck.
Protect your peepers. Even your eyes need sun protection. Make sure your sunglasses block 100 percent of UVA and UVB light. This protects your sensitive eyes and the delicate skin around them.
Don’t prolong your stay. These sun-protective measures aren’t license to stay in the sun longer. Do what you need to do, and then return to the indoors until the sun has fallen in the sky.
Avoid artificial UV lights. The sun isn’t your only skin cancer foe. Tanning beds and sun lamps are linked to deadly skin cancer, too. Avoid using these artificial UV light sources.
Get checked. Regular skin exams can help you and your doctor identify suspicious spots. They can be removed as soon as you find them, or your doctor may suggest watching for changes.
Despite doctors’ efforts, cases of skin cancer are still on the rise. Globally, two to three million non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed each year. More than 132,000 melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed.
Change in global climate is affecting skin cancer rates, too. Changes in the ozone layer means more solar UV radiation is reaching the Earth’s surface. Some estimate that a 10 percent decrease in ozone levels could potentially lead to an additional 300,000 non-melanoma and 4,500 melanoma cases.
Treating cancer is costly. Each year, melanoma treatment for patients 65 and older tallies up to about $249 million dollars. Treating all melanoma cases in 2010 cost an estimated $2.36 billion.