Skin Cancer

Skin cancer affects approximately 1 million people per year and is the most common form of cancer in America. Skin cancer develops in response to prolonged sun exposure and burning. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form.

The most serious form of skin cancer is melanoma. It begins as a tumor in the melanocyte cells, which produce melanin, a pigment found in skin, hair and eyes. If undetected, the cancer can spread rapidly.

Most moles, freckles and beauty spots on your skin are normal and harmless. However, over time they can change and become malignant, or cancerous, so it is important to stay vigilant about your skin’s health. Learn how to determine whether it's a mole or melonoma.

Sun exposure causes 65 percent of melanomas and 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers.

Tanning beds also are a risk factor. The risk for melanoma can increase 75 percent if a person begins using tanning beds before the age of 18.

Common Symptoms
Early detection is the key to surviving skin cancer. Doctors recommend having a dermatologist examine your skin once a year. You also should learn the ABCDEs that warn of skin cancer. You should see your doctor if you notice any of the following characteristics:

Asymmetry: You can draw a line down your mole and one side is larger than the other. A mole should be symmetrical.
Border: The borders are uneven, scalloped or notched. A mole should be nice, even and smooth.
Color: The mole is variegated, or if there are various shades of brown, tan, black or red in the mole. A mole should be one color.
Diameter: Your mole is bigger than an eraser point on a pencil.
Evolving: Your mole starts to change size, color or elevation.

In the past, the only way to determine if a mole was cancerous was to take a biopsy, which involves numbing the skin and cutting into it to take a sample for testing. The VivaScope is a new, noninvasive diagnostic tool that can achieve the same results. It uses high-tech imaging to look into the skin and detect potential cancerous developments. 

  • Related: ER physician Travis Stork has a number of moles on his back. Watch as he undergoes the VivaScope test to determine if any are cancerous.

The MelaFind tool also can help determine whether cells are abnormal and likely to be cancerous without cutting the skin.

Follow these guidelines to help protect your skin from sun exposure and help reduce your risk of skin cancer:

  • The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so limit your time outdoors during those hours. If you must be outside during that time, be sure to use proper protection.
  • Wear protective clothing such as sunglasses with 100 percent UV ray protection, wide-brimmed hats and clothes containing SPF.
  • When at the beach, bring an umbrella for shade.
  • Always wear sunscreen, and be sure to apply 30 minutes before exposing yourself to the sun. Remember to reapply every one-and-a-half to two hours.

If you are concerned about chemicals in some sunscreens, visit the Environmental Working Group's guide to sunscreens.

Treatment Options
If a biopsy determines your mole to be cancerous, it needs to be removed surgically. There are a number of methods for mole removal, including freezing, excisional surgery and laser surgery. Another option is Mohs surgery, a procedure that makes maps and templates of a patient’s face before anesthesia to confirm where facial landmarks were located before any swelling or inflammation occurs. This is meant to hide scars in those landmarks where the patient expects to see a shadow, a mark or a blemish that was there prior to surgery.
“Mohs surgery has the highest cure rate and is the most tissue preserving,” plastic surgeon Justin Piasecki explains.