Skin Cancer

Melanoma | Basal Cell Carcinoma | Squamous Cell Skin Cancer

As with any type of cancer, early detection of skin cancer is crucial.  Skin cancers are fairly easy to detect provided that the person has annual screenings with their dermatologist.  A dermatologist is not only trained to spot early stages of skin cancer, but they often have topical creams and other methods of removing early skin cancer that involves little or no discomfort.

Just like a person should have a relationship with a family doctor for routine screenings and medical problems, Alaska Surgical Oncology recommends that everyone over age 30 have annual skin cancer screenings with a dermatologist who is the best trained to identify early stages of minor cancers, or more serious skin cancers like melanoma. By having an ongoing relationship with the same dermatologist, that physician can note suspicious spots in your medical record and monitor any change in size or color and if they need removal.

Having an annual screening with a dermatologist is especially important for the following people:

  • those who spend a lot of time in the sun
  • those who are fair skinned or blond
  • those over age 50
  • those with unusual spots or skin abnormalities

When melanoma is detected early, it can be removed successfully by a surgical oncologist.  However, if not detected early, melanoma can be more difficult to treat as it can spread to other areas of the body.

Alaska Surgical Oncology is referred melanoma patients from dermatologists across Alaska, and if necessary we can recommend a dermatologist in your area for annual skin cancer screenings.

Skin cancers include melanoma, basal cell, and squamous cell. Basal and squamous cell are common and treatment is usually very effective. Malignant melanoma can be difficult to treat, however early detection, diagnosis and treatment can dramatically increase the survival rate from malignant melanoma.

Types of Skin Cancer — Skin cancers fall into two major categories:

The two most common nonmelanomas skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, are rarely life threatening. They progress slowly, seldom spread beyond the skin, are detected easily, and usually are curable.


Melanoma most commonly appears first on extremities, chest, or back, although it can occasionally arise on other places of the body. Melanoma can start in normal pigmented skin, or in a mole or birthmark.

Melanoma is a potentially aggressive, life-threatening cancer. It is readily detectable and usually curable if treated early, but it progresses faster than other types of skin cancer and can spread beyond the skin to affect numerous parts of the body, including the bones, organs or even the brain. Once this occurs, melanoma becomes very difficult to treat and is incurable.

How to detect melanoma

Everyone should have a skin cancer screening with a dermatologist every two or three years. If you are fair-skinned and have heavy exposure to sunlight, you should be screened once a year to detect any cancerous our pre-cancerous spots.  A person should routinely inspect themselves for any possible skin cancers and then have any suspicious spot checked more thoroughly by a dermatologist. Here is what to look for:

Check any moles or spots on your skin. Use the “ABCD rule”:

  • Asymmetry. Melanoma often has an asymmetrical shape, while regular moles have a more circular shape.  Also, if you notice any changes in the size or shape that can indicate the the mole may becoming cancerous and you need a dermatologist to inspect it.
  •  Border. Melanoma will have an irregular border compared to a mole which is more circular.
  • Color. Melanoma appears to be brownish or reddish compared to a normal mole which may appear black or dark brown. Also, if the mole appears to bleed or is itchy, it may be a melanoma.
  •  Diameter. Melanoma can be big in size, sometimes approaching the size of a dime. Healthy moles are usually smaller and more discreet.

Treatment options for Melanoma

Melanoma may be cured if it’s found and treated in its early stages when it affects only the skin. If melanoma has spread, it is much harder to treat. Treatments for melanoma may include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy. The entire melanoma may be surgically cut out, along with a margin of normal-appearing skin to ensure the cancer is removed. Chemotherapy uses medicines to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells and immunotherapy uses medicines to help your body’s immune system fight the cancer. Targeted therapy typically refers to using medicines that block cancer growth all together. The treatment options for melanoma are directly related to the particular stage of the cancer.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma accounts for nearly three out of four skin cancers and is the slowest growing out of the different types of skin cancers. Basal cell carcinoma is a cancer that usually grows on parts of your skin that get a frequent amount of sunlight. If you’ve got fair skin, you’re more likely to get this skin cancer. This type of skin cancer is the least risky and as long as you catch it early, you can be cured. Basal cell carcinoma is unlikely to spread from your skin to other parts of your body, but it can move nearby into bone or other tissue under your skin if left untreated.

The tumors start off as small shiny bumps, usually on your nose or other parts of your face, legs, and arms. Basal cell carcinoma usually grows very slowly and normally doesn’t show up for many years after intense or long-term exposure to the sun.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun or from tanning beds are the main cause of basal cell carcinoma. Ultraviolet rays constantly hitting your skin can damage the DNA in your skin cells. The DNA in your skin cells holds the code for the way these cells grow. Damage to this DNA can cause cancer to form after many years of exposure to sunlight.

Symptoms of Basal cell carcinoma:

Basal cell carcinoma is a skin growth that usually appears dome-shaped with blood vessels inside, in which it can appear pink, brown, or black. Sometimes these growths can look dark or you may also see shiny pink patches that are slightly scaly. At first, a basal cell carcinoma comes up like a small bump that looks like a skin-colored mole or a pimple that doesn’t go away. Other basal cell carcinomas may look like a waxy, hard skin growth. Basal cell carcinomas are also fragile and can bleed easily.

Treatment for a basal cell cancer is usually surgery to remove the lesion. If the cancer can’t be surgically removed, it may be treated with radiation, pills, or prescription creams. Most basal cell skin cancers can be cured, but some may return after treatment.

Squamous Cell Skin Cancer

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer in light-skinned people and is rarely found in people who have dark skin. Squamous cell skin cancer usually occurs on areas of the skin that have been in the sun, such as the ears, nose, forehead, lips, and hands. It can also appear on places of the skin that have been treated in the past with radiation, or exposed to chemical, fire, and sunlight burns. Squamous cell cancers can grow into large masses and spread to nearby lymph nodes making the cancer harder to treat.

Symptoms of squamous cell skin cancer:

  • Patch of skin that feels scaly, crusty, or bleeds.
  • Firm red bump.
  • Sore that does not heal.

Treatment of squamous cell skin cancer involves surgical removal of the affected skin site. If it is a severe case, treatment may include radiation therapy or chemotherapy. When squamous cell skin cancer is properly treated, the cure rate is high.

The Healthquest Guidebook

As a community service, we have produced a free guidebook on how to detect and prevent common cancers, and when you need to have screenings with your family physician.

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