How is Skin Cancer Detected, and What are the Treatment Approaches?

What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer occurs when abnormal skin cells grow uncontrollably, often as a result of excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. These cells multiply rapidly and can invade surrounding tissue. While the disease primarily affects the skin, it can metastasize to other parts of the body if left untreated. There are several forms of skin cancer, varying in aggressiveness. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common and tends to grow slowly, while melanoma, a rarer form, is more dangerous due to its propensity to spread quickly. Early detection and treatment can significantly improve the prognosis for those affected, highlighting the importance of regular skin checks and sun protection.

Types of Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer Detected

There are three primary types of skin cancer:

  1. Basal Cell Carcinoma: The most common type, typically developing on sun-exposed areas. It grows slowly and rarely spreads but can cause significant damage if untreated.
  2. Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Often found on the face and ears, it can spread to other body parts.
  3. Melanoma: Less common but the most dangerous type. It can spread quickly to other organs if not detected early.

How Common is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the world, with millions of new cases emerging annually. Non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal and squamous cell carcinoma, are the most prevalent, affecting millions in the U.S. each year. Melanoma, though less common, remains a significant concern due to its higher mortality rate. Risk factors such as UV exposure, fair skin, and a history of sunburns increase the likelihood of developing the disease. Despite its high incidence, most forms of skin cancer are treatable if detected early, emphasizing the importance of awareness and routine skin examinations.

How Can I Detect Skin Cancer?

Perform regular self-examinations of your skin, especially areas frequently exposed to the sun. Watch for changes in existing moles or spots and the appearance of new growths.

Symptoms and Causes

Skin cancer can present as a new growth or a change in an existing mole. Some common signs include:

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma: Pearly or waxy bump, often on the face.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Firm, red nodule, or flat sore with a scaly crust.
  • Melanoma: Large, asymmetrical mole with irregular borders and color changes.

Causes: Skin cancer is often caused by DNA damage due to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds. Other risk factors include a family history, weakened immune system, or exposure to certain chemicals.

What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

Skin Cancer Detected

It varies depending on the type:

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma: May appear as an open sore, pink growth, or a shiny bump.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Scaly red patches, open sores, or wart-like growths.
  • Melanoma: Dark, irregular mole or growth.

What Causes the Condition?

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning beds is the leading cause of skin cancer, damaging DNA and triggering mutations that lead to abnormal cell growth. Fair-skinned individuals are particularly susceptible, as they have less melanin to protect against UV rays. Other causes include exposure to radiation, certain chemicals like arsenic, and chronic inflammation or wounds. Immunosuppression, either from medication or disease, can also increase vulnerability, as can a family history of skin cancer.

What Are the Risk Factors for Skin Cancer?

  • Excessive sun exposure without protection.
  • Frequent tanning bed use.
  • Fair skin or light-colored hair and eyes.
  • A weakened immune system.
  • Personal or family history of skin cancer.

Diagnosis and Tests

Diagnosing skin cancer involves a thorough physical examination and history review. Dermatologists often use dermoscopy, a specialized tool for examining skin lesions. If a suspicious growth is found, a skin biopsy is performed, where a sample of the abnormal tissue is removed for microscopic analysis. Biopsies help confirm the presence of cancer and determine its type. Additional imaging tests like CT or MRI scans may be required if cancer is suspected to have spread to other areas of the body.

What Tests Will Be Done to Diagnose Skin Cancer?

A skin biopsy involves removing a sample of tissue for laboratory analysis to determine the type and extent of cancer.

Tests for Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers

  • Skin Biopsy: Removal and examination of suspicious skin tissue.
  • Lymph Node Biopsy: To check if cancer has spread.
  • Imaging Tests: In advanced cases, scans may be used to check for metastasis.

Skin Biopsy

A biopsy is performed by taking a small section of skin tissue. It may involve:

  • Shave Biopsy: Removing a superficial layer.
  • Punch Biopsy: Extracting a deeper skin layer.
  • Excisional Biopsy: Removing the entire lesion.

What Are Skin Cancer Stages?

Melanoma Staging

  • Stage 0: Confined to the outer skin layer.
  • Stage I-II: Limited to the skin but varies in thickness.
  • Stage III: Spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV: Spread to other organs.

Non-Melanoma Staging

Typically staged as “low-risk” or “high-risk,” depending on the lesion size, depth, and location.

How Is Skin Cancer Treated?

Skin Cancer Detected

Skin cancer treatment depends on the type, stage, and patient health. Surgical excision is the most common treatment, where the cancerous lesion and surrounding tissue are removed. Mohs surgery is particularly effective for basal and squamous cell carcinomas. Radiation therapy is used when surgery isn’t possible or to target remaining cancer cells. Other treatments include cryotherapy (freezing), topical medications, and systemic therapies like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy, particularly for advanced melanoma.

Complications/Side Effects of the Treatment

Treatment for skin cancer can lead to complications. Surgery may cause scarring, wound infections, and changes in skin pigmentation. Radiation therapy might result in fatigue, skin irritation, and hair loss in the treated area. Chemotherapy and immunotherapy can cause nausea, fatigue, and increased infection risk. Targeted therapies sometimes lead to skin rashes and gastrointestinal issues. Mohs surgery, though effective, can leave noticeable scars. Despite potential side effects, early treatment significantly improves recovery rates.

Can Skin Cancer Be Prevented?

While it can’t be entirely prevented, you can significantly reduce your risk of skin cancer by taking precautions. Limiting UV exposure is crucial; wear protective clothing and broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, and avoid tanning beds. Conduct regular self-examinations and consult a dermatologist annually. Early detection is key, and those at high risk should be extra vigilant. Be mindful of UV index warnings and seek shade during peak sun hours.

How Can I Lower My Risk?

  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Use sunscreen daily with SPF 30 or higher.
  • Wear protective clothing and hats.
  • Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.


Skin cancer is a common condition characterized by the abnormal growth of skin cells, often due to excessive UV radiation. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the most prevalent but usually less aggressive than melanoma. Common symptoms include new or changing moles and sores that don’t heal. Diagnosis relies on skin biopsies, and treatment options vary from surgical excision to systemic therapies. Preventative measures like sunscreen use and routine skin checks can significantly reduce risk. Early detection remains vital, and regular dermatological exams are essential for timely treatment.


Skin cancer is detectable through visible changes in the skin, such as new or evolving moles, sores that don’t heal, or unusual growths. Dermatologists often use dermoscopy to assess suspicious lesions and confirm diagnoses through skin biopsies.

The seven warning signs include:

  • Asymmetrical mole or lesion
  • Irregular borders
  • Multiple or uneven colors
  • Diameter larger than a pencil eraser
  • Evolving or changing moles
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Persistent itching, tenderness, or bleeding.
Regular self-exams help detect changes in moles or new growths. Use the ABCDE rule (Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving) to assess suspicious spots and consult a dermatologist annually for a professional skin exam.
Currently, blood tests are not used to detect skin cancer. However, blood work can assist in evaluating the spread of advanced melanoma or monitoring treatment response in metastatic disease.
Perform monthly self-exams in good lighting using mirrors to inspect hard-to-see areas. Look for changes in moles, growths, and sores. Apply the ABCDE rule and consult a dermatologist if you notice unusual or evolving lesions.
Detect skin cancer early through monthly self-exams, professional annual skin checks, and prompt consultation with a dermatologist if you notice changes. Early detection significantly increases treatment success.