What Is Skin Cancer
by Lisa Benest, MD.
Cancer occurs when cells multiply in an uncontrolled fashion. Any cell can lose control and begin to divide too rapidly, thus causing a cancer of that cell type. In fact, this happens almost daily in our body, but we are equipped with an exquisite surveillance mechanism that finds these aberrated cells and destroys them before they reproduce. Various environmental “insults” can make this more likely to occur—for example, cigarette smoke, toxins and radiation.
The top layer of our skin is called the epidermis, which contains a variety of cell types. The 3 basic cells are the squamous cell, the basal cell and the melanocyte, each with its own distinct function. The squamous cells act as the “bricks” of the epidermis. They regenerate from below and grow upward. The cells grow older and reach the top, where they finally dry out and slough off (and contribute to your house dust!). After a bad sunburn, layers of these squamous cells peel off.
Dr. Lisa Benest, MD
Dr. Lisa Benest received her medical degree at UC Irvine with further training in Los Angeles and New York. A diplomat of the American Board of Dermatology and a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, she has been in private practice for 8 years, specializing in general and cosmetic dermatology, as well as skin cancer surgery. Dr. Benest is known for her friendly and personal care.
The bottom row of epidermal cells is called the basal layer. It contains both your basal cells and melanocytes. The basal cells are the parent cells which divide and give rise to the squamous cells. The melanocytes can be found scattered between the basal cells. They produce clumps of pigment called melanin. When you tan, your melanocytes get excited and put out more melanin, thus giving your skin a darker color.
If any of these cell types begin to divide too rapidly, they form a skin cancer. Cancers begin “in-situ”, which means they are found just locally at the spot where they originated, and have not broken through their natural boundaries. They are typically small at this time and respond excellently to local removal. When they grow larger and extend outside of their original boundaries, they are no longer in-situ, and now have the potential to spread to farther locations (metastasize).
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) - is the most common type of skin cancer. It forms from basal cells that multiply too rapidly. It is mainly seen on sun-exposed areas and looks like a shiny pink bump that usually bleeds more easily. This type of skin cancer virtually never spreads and it responds excellently to local treatment, such as scraping or surgical removal.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) also presents relatively frequently, mainly on sun exposed skin areas. It can look like a thick, hard nodule or a pink, scaly patch that may bleed when rubbed. SCC’s respond quite nicely to local surgical removal, although there is a slightly higher propensity to spread, compared with BCC’s. As a result, they are treated with a little more caution, particularly on the lip or ear. In most cases, simple removal is enough to cure it.
Melanoma is a skin cancer that derives from the melanocytes. That is why melanomas are usually dark in color. When melanomas are caught early enough, they are cured with surgical removal. Sometimes a nearby lymph node is removed and examined to check for early spread. If there is evidence of spread, various treatments, in addition to surgery, may be recommended.
Naturally, the best cure for skin cancer is prevention, as well as early detection. That includes minimizing sun exposure, wearing a hat and protective clothing, as well as applying a broad spectrum sunscreen, SPF 30 or higher, every 2 hours while outdoors. Most of all, you should get familiar with your skin by performing routine self-examinations. By finding early changes in your moles or finding new suspicious lesions, you can help your doctors detect skin cancer before it has a chance to spread.
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