Understanding and Preventing Skin Cancer

The skin is the largest organ in the body and home to the most common type of cancer in the United States – skin cancer. Though most skin cancer is not life threatening, melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer kills thousands of people every year. Early detection and treatment leads to improved survival with melanoma and more normal appearance after treatment of other types of skin cancer.

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Melanoma requires aggressive treatment and there are very well defined guidelines about treatment. The other two types can be more conservatively treated. Depending on the stage, location, and size, several treatment options exists. Topical medications can be used which help to ‘burn’ the skin cancers, cryotherapy can be used to freeze the tumors, and surgical excision can be used to completely remove the tumors.

For patients with tumors in sensitive areas, Mohs micrographic surgery can be used to preserve as much normal tissue as possible. The technique was developed by Dr. Dr. Frederic E. Mohs in the early 1900’s. By using a special technique, specially trained surgeons can immediately examine the removed specimen and determine if tumor is still present. This allows for removal of only the tumor itself and allows the surgeon to leave as much normal tissue as possible.

Avoidance of the contributing factors to skin cancer is the best treatment. The biggest risk factor for skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation exposure – both from the sun and artifical sources such as tanning beds. Long term exposure over a lifetime can signficantly raise a person’s risk of skin cancer. Use of sunscreens and avoidance of excess sun exposure can be the first step to maintaining healthy skin for a lifetime.

A family or personal history of skin cancer and significant sun exposure warrant yearly head to toe skin examinations by a primary care physician or dermatologist. The sooner is a skin cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the cosmetic and medical prognosis can be.

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