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Skin Cancer: What You Need to Know

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What are symptoms of skin cancer?
Skin cancer can appear as moles, raised bumps, scaly patches or open sores. There are three primary types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as a firm red nodule or a scaly, flat lesion. It occurs in the cells just below the skin’s outer surface. These cells function as the skin’s inner lining.

Basal cell carcinoma may appear as a small, smooth, pearly or waxy bump or as a pink, red or brown-colored lesion. It occurs just beneath the skin’s inner lining in the cells that work to produce new skin cells.

Melanoma most often appears as a pigmented bump or patch, or as a mole with an irregular appearance, asymmetric borders and uneven color and it may change in size. Melanoma occurs in melanocytes, cells located in the lower part of the epidermis, which produce the skin’s pigment.

How can I prevent skin cancer?
If skin cancer is diagnosed and treated early, it can be curable, but the best form of action is to prevent the disease in the first place. Apply sunscreen of SPF30 or higher before any outdoor activity, seek shade and limit exposure to the sun between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., wear hats and protective clothing, and avoid tanning beds. Perform regular self-examinations to look for atypical moles, freckles or skin changes.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that you apply at least an ounce of sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours for optimal protection. Be sure to read the expiration date on your sunscreen and replace it every two to three years. Consider using a lotion sunscreen instead of a spray to better assess the coverage, thus reducing your risk of burning. Discuss your individual risk factors with a dermatologist to determine whether you need regular screenings, such as an annual full body checkup.

What are treatment options for skin cancer?
Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type and degree of the disease. The most common treatments for skin cancer are Mohs surgery and radiation therapy. Mohs surgery involves surgical removal of tumors and the layers of skin containing cancerous cells until they are cleared while leaving as much healthy tissue as possible.

Radiation therapy is a nonsurgical alternative with comparable results. The benefit of radiation therapy is that it is not invasive. This treatment is delivered with highly sophisticated systems that pinpoint the cancerous cells while minimizing damage to the surrounding healthy cells. The radiation preferentially targets the skin cancer, effectively destroying it. Treatments are fast and pain free. There is no cutting, no anesthesia and a low recovery time. In many cases, patients can get back to their normal routine shortly after they walk out the door.

Depending on the type of skin cancer, its size and its location, radiation may be used alone or in combination with surgery. If the cancer site is relatively large, in a surgically difficult location, or if the patient is not a good candidate for surgery, radiation is often the primary treatment.

Written by: Dan Vongtama, MD

Dr. Dan Vongtama is board certified in radiation oncology and a member of the American Society for Radiation Oncology as well as the American College of Radiation Oncology. He is currently serving on the board of the San Joaquin Medical Society. Throughout his career, Dr. Vongtama has been involved in several radiation therapy research developments and has contributed to professional publications on various diseases including breast, lung and esophageal cancers. Dr. Vongtama has a special interest in the study and treatment of head and neck, prostate, breast and gynecologic cancers and practices at St. Teresa Comprehensive Cancer Center in Stockton, CA.