Skin Cancer

The skin consists of several layers and is the body’s largest organ. The names of the two primary layers of skin are dermis, which refers to the inner layer of skin, and epidermis, which refers to the outer layer of skin. Most skin cancer begins in the epidermis, and the most common cause is repeated exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun.

Types of Skin Cells Present in the Epidermis

The epidermis contains the following types of skin cells:

  • Basal: Round cells that sit underneath squamous cells
  • Squamous: Flat and thin cells that create the top layer of the epidermis
  • Melanocytes: Melanin is the name for the pigment that provides the skin with color, while melanocytes are cells that form melanin. Melanocytes create additional pigmentation in response to UV ray exposure.

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two most common and least serious types of skin cancer. These types of cancer remain on the outer layer of skin and a dermatologist must remove the cells to prevent them from spreading. Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are nearly always curable but may result in permanent scarring or disfigurement.

Melanoma is the most serious type of cancer because these cells are most likely to spread to other organs like the lungs, heart, and brain. The American Cancer Society states that the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent if detected and treated early. Unfortunately, only 27 percent of people whose melanoma has spread to distant organs survive for five years. Early detection is literally a matter of life or death.

How Dermatologists Detect Skin Cancer

Dermatologists are medical doctors who specialize in treating diseases of the skin. When a patient presents for a skin cancer exam, the dermatologist asks questions about medical history and any skin changes the patient has noticed. For example, has a mole grown larger or does a wound repeatedly scab over but never completely heal? These are just two typical signs of potential skin cancer.

Dermatologists start a routine skin exam by checking the same signs they recommend patients look for at home. These include:

  • Asymmetrical spots, which means the sides of a mole or marking are not even
  • Brown spots that have a different appearance than other spots on a patient’s skin
  • Multi-colored spots or numerous spots of different colors
  • Non-healing wounds
  • New or excessive moles or spots
  • Spots with a shiny appearance

A dermatoscope is a special tool that allows dermatologists to see potential problem areas on the skin more clearly. They use this tool to focus on areas of the skin that look suspicious for cancer or problem areas reported by patients. Once diagnosed, the specific course of treatment depends on whether the patient has basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma. Basal and squamous cell skin cancers typically respond well to Mohs surgery that dermatologists complete on an outpatient basis.

Are you concerned about possible symptoms of skin cancer? Please contact Ann Arundel Dermatology to schedule a routine skin check with one of our experienced providers.

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