It’s estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 8,000 people will die of melanoma in the U.S. this year. That’s why early detection and treatment of any type of skin cancer is so important.

Types of skin cancer

There are four types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell, Merkel cell, and melanoma. Most skin cancers are basal or squamous cell cancers, with melanoma and Merkel cell cancers being more rare. 

Can skin cancer be treated?

When basal and squamous cell cancers are identified early, they’re usually treatable and curable. These types of cancers are typically non-aggressive and slow growing.

Treatment depends on the size and location. These types of cancer can usually be treated with either prescription ointments or a surgical procedure known as an excision, most often performed on an outpatient basis in the doctor’s office. Excisions use a local anesthetic, meaning that pain is minimal. In some cases, your doctor may recommend radiation treatments.

Once removed, a pathologist will analyze the lesion and determine if all cancerous tissue was removed. If the “margins,” or surrounding tissue, come back negative, no further treatment is required. However, it’s worthwhile to seek regular skin exams afterward.

Melanoma can be fatal

Melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer, belongs in a category of its own because of its ability to spread and be potentially fatal. As a result, surgery is often the only real treatment option.

In most melanoma cases, we perform a full-thickness biopsy of the skin lesion to see how deep the lesion is. If a large amount of tissue needs to be removed, or if it’s an area that is highly visible, the surgeon will often work with a cosmetic surgeon to minimize the appearance of scarring.

Am I at risk for skin cancer?

Certain people may have a higher risk of developing skin cancer in their lives. The sooner skin cancer is diagnosed, the better your chances for a positive outcome. Examine your skin regularly on your own and with a physician.

Remember the letters A-B-C-D-E when performing a skin exam. Lesions that are Asymetrical, have irregular Borders, multiple Colors, a Diameter greater than six millimeters, or Evolves (new or changing lesions) should be noted. If you spot something suspicious, make an appointment with your doctor.

Those who are fair skinned, have blonde or red hair, or have light eyes face a higher risk for skin cancer. People with more melanin have a decreased risk of developing skin cancer, but are still at risk of developing it on lighter parts of the skin, such as the palms, soles, underneath fingernails or inside the mouth.

If you have a history of skin cancer, you should be checked on a regular basis at least once a year.

How to prevent skin cancer

Use sunscreen! Most skin cancers are sun exposure-related. Use a high-SPF sunscreen beginning at a young age and continue the routine throughout your lifetime. 

Protective clothing with SPF can also help, especially when used in combination with sunscreen on the skin. Practicing summer skin safety is important for overall health as well, not just for reducing the risk of skin cancer.

If you are concerned about skin cancer talk with your primary care provider or call the Lifespan Cancer Institute at 1-844-222-2881 to meet with one of our specialists for a skin check. 

Bradford Gray, MD

Bradford C. Gray, MD

Dr. Bradford C. Gray, FACS, is a board-certified general surgeon affiliated with Newport Hospital