Learn More About Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment in Dallas
The words alone can trigger feelings of worry: skin cancer. Dallas-area dermatologist Dr. Ellen Turner routinely hears from patients concerned about the disease, which is why she emphasizes education about the subject in addition to diagnosis and treatment. While skin cancer is certainly something to take seriously, knowledge of how to improve prevention strategies, achieve an accurate and timely diagnosis, and get the best treatment possible if necessary can go a long way toward easing anxieties.
In fact, there is no single "skin cancer" to watch for. Several varieties exist, and there are many possible treatments that can be employed, depending on the type, stage, and location of the cancer cells. Modern medical advances have led to high cure and survival rates. In all cases, routine practice of adequate prevention tactics is the absolute best tool in the fight against the disease. That said, regular skin checks with a dermatologist are key for maintaining skin health, since they increase the likelihood of early detection of skin cancer, which improves outcomes.
What is Skin Cancer?
All skin is made up of a variety of cells, which develop and grow in regular, predictable cycles. Sometimes, however, typical cell growth can be disrupted, leading to the uncontrolled multiplication of mutated cells. The abnormal cells may be localized, or they may spread to other areas of the body.
While damage from ultraviolet radiation in sunlight or tanning beds is a major contributor to the development of skin cancer, it is not the only factor. Other environmental influences can cause skin cells to mutate, and the disease has a genetic component as well.
As noted above, there are several different types of skin cancer. The three most common types are determined by the layer of skin where the cancerous cells develop.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
The most common form of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma (BCC), which—as the name implies—forms in the basal cells that sit at the bottom of the outermost layer of skin. By some estimates, more than 4 million people are diagnosed with BCC in the United States each year. Often appearing as a sore, bump, or patch of discolored skin, BCC rarely grows beyond the area it first appears, making treatment fairly straightforward. This does not mean that diagnosed—or even suspected—basal cell carcinoma should be ignored, but it does mean the patient has many options, especially if the problem is caught early. Treatment possibilities for this skin cancer includetopical medications, superficial radiation, and surgical excision.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
The next most common form of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), develops in the uppermost layers of the skin. Doctors diagnose more than a million new cases in the United States annually, and the disease appears to be on the rise. Patients dealing with SCC will likely notice scaly, crusty, or bleeding growths, sores, or patches. These lesions most typically develop on skin that is routinely exposed to the sun, but can appear anywhere on the body. Left untreated, the cancer cells have a greater likelihood of spreading. As with BCC, squamous cell carcinoma may be treated with topical medications, superficial radiation, or surgery, depending on the specifics of the case.
Least common of the three main types of skin cancer is melanoma, which is also the most fatal form of the disease. Melanoma develops in the cells that make pigment, which sit in the basal layer of the epidermis. Because of this, growths caused by melanoma can appear in a range of colors, but are frequently brown or black. These small tumors often resemble moles. Since melanoma can develop and spread rapidly, early detection is crucial to starting an effective treatment to destroy or remove the cancer cells and try to prevent them from metastasizing. Since this skin cancer is aggressive, treatment is typically more aggressive, too, so tactics that work on BCC or SCC may not be recommended.
What Are Skin Cancer Warning Signs?
A medical doctor will make an official diagnosis of skin cancer, typically by performing a biopsy, which involves collecting a sample of skin cells from the area where skin cancer is suspected, then having them tested to confirm the presence of cancer cells. Deciding when to bring a worrisome mole, bump, or red patch in for examination is the important first step in this process.
First, annual skin checks by a dermatologist can aid in the discovery of areas of concern—especially if the patient points out any particularly troublesome spots to the doctor. Patients are also always free to contact a dermatologist to examine anything that may warrant a closer look. There are five factors considered to be warning signs that indicate the possible presence of skin cancer cells, which can be remembered as ABCDE:
The shape of a mole can be a sign of the possible presence of cancer. While many lesions are round and essentially symmetrical, the uncontrolled multiplication of cancer cells can lead to the development of asymmetrical growths. Patients who notice that one half of a mole doesn't match the other side should ensure a dermatologist takes a closer look.
The borders of a cancerous lesion may be ill defined or scalloped, as opposed to the clearer demarcations of a benign mole. Any spot or growth that resembles a spreading stain should be examined by a professional, who can test for skin cancer.
Moles are typically brown, but do come in a range of colors. Typically, though, the color is uniform. A warning sign is a single mole that displays multiple shades, appearing as a mottled or mixed collection of varying browns and blacks. Red, white, and even blue may also be visible.
The size of a mole matters, and though plenty of variations in diameter exist, anything larger than 6 millimeters across may be cause for concern. Smaller lesions can certainly indicate skin cancer, but any mole that reaches the size of a pencil eraser should definitely be studied.
This is where self awareness and regular checks with a dermatologist come in handy. An evolving or changing mole can indicate the rapid growth of cancer cells, so a lesion that looks or feels different than it did before should trigger suspicion of skin cancer. The evolution can be in color or size. A mole may become further raised or grow in new directions. Bring an evolving mole in for an exam—especially if the evolution causes it to become asymmetrical, develop irregular borders, change colors, or grow in diameter.
Skin Cancer Treatment
As explained in the “What is Skin Cancer?” section, doctors have a range of treatments to choose from when helping a patient in the fight against skin cancer. The best potential cure depends on the patient and a host of other factors, but the main options are to kill or remove the cancer cells from the body. Dr. Ellen Turner can explain more about the specific skin cancer treatments available at her Dallas practice.