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Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer Overview

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in this country. About one million Americans develop skin cancer each year.

The Skin

The skin is the body's largest organ. It protects against heat, light, injury, and infection. It helps control body temperature. It stores water and fat. The skin also makes vitamin D.

The skin has two main layers

Epidermis: The epidermis is the top layer of the skin. It is mostly made of flat cells. These are squamous cells. Under the squamous cells in the deepest part of the epidermis are round cells called basal cells. Cells called melanocytes make the pigment (color) found in skin and are located in the lower part of the epidermis.

Dermis: The dermis is under the epidermis. It contains blood vessels, lymph vessels, and glands. Some of these glands make sweat, which helps cool the body. Other glands make sebum. Sebum is an oily substance that helps keep the skin from drying out. Sweat and sebum reach the surface of the skin through tiny openings called pores.

How Skin Cancer Develops

Skin cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up the skin. Normally, skin cells grow and divide to form new cells. Every day skin cells grow old and die, and new cells take their place.

Sometimes, this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the skin does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Tumors

Growths or tumors can be benign or malignant:

Benign growths are not cancer:

Malignant growths are cancer:

Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancers are named for the type of cells that become cancerous. Types of skin cancer are:

These cancers usually form on the head, face, neck, hands, and arms. These areas are exposed to the sun. But skin cancer can occur anywhere.

Basal cell skin cancer grows slowly. It usually occurs on areas of the skin that have been in the sun. It is most common on the face. Basal cell cancer rarely spreads to other parts of the body.

Squamous cell skin cancer also occurs on parts of the skin that have been in the sun. But it also may be in places that are not in the sun. Squamous cell cancer sometimes spreads to lymph nodes and organs inside the body.

Melanoma is a form of cancer that begins in melanocytes (cells that make the pigment melanin). It may begin in a mole (skin melanoma), but can also begin in other pigmented tissues, such as in the eye or in the intestines.

If skin cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new growth has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary growth. It is still called skin cancer.

Screening and Prevention

Checking your skin for new growths or other changes is a good idea. The National Cancer Institute website has a helpful guide for checking your skin. Keep in mind that changes are not a sure sign of skin cancer. Still, you should report any changes to your health care provider right away. You may need to see a dermatologist, a doctor who has special training in the diagnosis and treatment of skin problems.

Source: National Cancer Institute - What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer

To Learn More

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Last Reviewed: Aug 07, 2013

Jeremy S Bordeaux, MD, MPH Jeremy S Bordeaux, MD, MPH
Assistant Professor of Dermatology
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University