Is it a mole or skin cancer?

As we age, our skin continually reminds us of how much time we spend in the sun. Laugh lines deepen and mysterious spots begin to appear from nowhere. How do you know if a spot is safe or a possible sign of skin cancer?     

Even though skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, it can be hard to recognize since there are different types, signs and symptoms. The experts at Erlanger would like to share some facts to help you learn more about skin cancer and how you can stay ahead of this life-threatening disease.

What is skin cancer?

In order to understand skin cancer, it’s important to understand your skin. Your epidermis, or outer layer of skin is made up of three types of cells – basal cells, squamous cells and melanocytes (natural sunblock cells that also darken with sun exposure). The three most common types of skin cancer are named after the cells they invade.

Skin cancer can start out as pre-cancerous moles or rashes. However, left untreated, these growths can spread and penetrate deeper into the skin and bone causing a more advanced form of cancer.

What are the most common types of skin cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, these are the three most common cancers to watch for:

Basal cell carcinoma, which starts in basal cells, makes up about 80 percent of skin cancers. This cancer typically:

  • Develops on areas that get a lot of sun
  • Grows slowly and is less likely to spread, with treatment
  • Needs to be removed or it will come back
  • Looks like a hard red bump, scaly patch or recurring sore

Squamous cell carcinoma, which affects squamous cells, is responsible for about 20 percent of skin cancers. This cancer typically:

  • Develops on areas that get a lot of sun
  • Forms in scars or sores in other parts of the body
  • Has a higher incidence of spreading into other parts of the body than basal cell carcinoma
  • Looks like skin-colored, smooth bumps, or pink scaly or crusted patches of skin

Melanoma, which forms in the melanocyte cells, is far less common than basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. However, it is considered to be more dangerous, since it’s more likely to grow and spread if left untreated. This cancer typically:

  • Develops on areas that get sun, but also other areas
  • Appears in moles or darkened spots on the skin
  • Has an irregular shape, or changes in size or color

Melanoma can be hard to determine, because moles and dark spots are common on the body. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests moles or spots that look different than other moles, have irregular shapes or coloring, or are larger than the size of pencil eraser should be closely examined. The organization has published a handy guide to help you identify the signs of melanoma.

When should you seek treatment?

Any time you notice a new or changing skin condition – especially in areas that have seen a lot of sun – you should see a dermatologist. Your provider can help diagnose your condition and prevent cancer from progressing. In addition, he or she can create a “mole map” – a baseline record of moles and skin conditions that can be tracked over time. Through constant monitoring, you can set the stage for healthy, cancer-free skin.

Dr. Allison Goddard and Dr. Cara Hennings of UT Erlanger Dermatology are board-certified physicians who can diagnose and treat skin cancer and other conditions affecting the skin, nails and hair.  Visit their site to learn more or call 778-5693.