Three Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is so called because it tends to develop in the three types of cells in the top layer of the skin, the epidermis. Exposure to ultraviolet light, UVA and UVB, from the sun and other sources is the primary cause although heredity and immune system deficiency are among other factors that can contribute.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

The most frequently occurring form of skin cancer. BCCs develop in the deepest layer of the epidermis. They often look like open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny lumps or scars and almost never spread or metastasize beyond the original tumor site. Sun exposure is the primary cause of BCCs.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

An uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the upper most layer of the epidermis. A life time of sun exposure is believed to be the major factor in SCC. SCC is most common in areas that show damage from intense sustained sun exposure, for example the rim of the ear, lower lip, balding scalp, neck, hands arms and legs. The skin in these areas may be wrinkled, have lost elasticity, have freckles or age spots and broken blood vessels. However SCC can develop in areas where there is no sun exposure such as the mucous membranes, the vagina, esophagus, anus, urogenital tract, small intestines and the genitals.

Melanoma (MM)

The most aggressive, deadliest and least common skin cancer, develops in cells called melanocytes which produce melanin which gives the skin a tan or brown color. Ultraviolet light exposure from the sun or other sources such as tanning beds can produce damage that causes tumors to develop in the melanocytes. If caught early melanoma is curable but it is also the most likely skin cancer to spread to other parts of the body.

The best preventative program for MM as well as all skin cancers includes monthly self-examinations:


Use the ABCDE Guide to examine your skin for suspicious lesions with asymmetry (A), border irregularity (B), color variability (C), diameter greater than 6 mm (D), and evolution or change (E).

Check nevi (moles) for signs of change and note any that are unlike the body’s other moles (the Ugly Duckling Concept). Rarely, Melanoma can manifest in atypical ways including presenting as a lesion (a melanotic melanoma) and rarely in the eye or in places where there has been no sun exposure.

Skin of color is more likely to develop melanoma that presents in an unusual fashion. For example, Acral Lentiginous Melanoma, the most common melanoma in African Americans, can be mistaken for an ingrown toe nail, an age streak in the nail bed or a fungal infection on the palms or bottom of the foot. A common misconception that people of color cannot get skin cancer because of the darker color of their skin, leads to frequent misdiagnosis and a less favorable outcome.

Combining monthly self-examinations with an annual screening by your dermatologist remains the best protection against skin cancer.

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