Skin cancer is cancer that forms in the tissues of the skin. There are two main classifications of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.
What is Melanoma and Skin Cancer?
Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, affects skin cells that make pigment for the skin called melanocytes. Each year in the United States, an estimated 76,250 new melanoma cases are diagnosed.
It is often difficult to detect melanoma in its early stages, when the cancer is forming, because the melanocytes are located below the epidermis, or the surface of the skin. Once a melanoma grows to a certain size, the cancer cells may metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body, making it difficult to treat.
Melanoma can spread (metastasize) quickly to other parts of the body through the lymph or circulatory systems.
Non-melanoma Skin Cancers
Non-melanoma skin cancer affects other cells in the skin. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, together, account for 95 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers.
In both, extra cells form on the surface or below the skin, which becomes a growth. This growth may be benign (non-cancerous and removable) or malignant (cancerous and able to invade nearby tissues).Most of these cancers are easy to detect, because they cause a growth, sore, or other mark on the skin.
Other types of cells located deeper under the skin often involve another medical condition, such as a weakened immune system, and also may become cancerous. These cancers include:
- Cutaneous lymphoma
- Merkel cell carcinoma
Risk Factors and Warning Signs
Anything that increases a person's chance of developing a disease is called a risk factor. Though the precise cause of melanoma and skin cancer is unknown, the following risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing skin cancer:
- Skin color – Individuals with light-colored eyes and skin are at a higher risk than those with brown eyes and naturally darker skin.
- History of sunburns – A history of severe blistering sunburns, particularly during childhood and teenage years, is a recurring theme among those diagnosed.
- Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation – Excessive tanning bed exposure and sunbathing puts the skin at higher risk.
- Moles – An increased presence of moles, or the presence of dysplastic or other atypical moles, may be a warning sign of higher risk.
- Suppressed immune systems – Certain states of immunosuppression (e.g., that of renal transplant patients and those with Hodgkin's Disease) make one more vulnerable to the risk of developing melanoma.
- Previous melanoma – Personal or family history of melanoma gives you a genetic predisposition for developing the disease.
Warning signs for skin cancer and melanoma include:
- Change in the size, shape, or color of a mole
- Oozing or bleeding from a mole
- A mole that feels itchy, hard, lumpy, swollen, or tender to the touch
- The pigmented area of a mole doesn't look normal
Awareness and Early Detection
In an effort to increase public awareness about melanoma, UPMC CancerCenter joins other organizations, nationwide, to promote National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month in May.
UPMC CancerCenter also offers free skin cancer screenings on the third Friday of every month at the Hillman Cancer Center.
More about Melanoma and Skin Cancer
Learn more about the different types of skin cancer from the National Cancer Institute: