Skip Navigation Bar
NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Feature:
Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer: Biology, Risk Factors & Treatment

Woman Applying Sun Screen

Cancer Cells

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the skin and other organs of the body. Normal cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they usually die, and new cells take their place.

But sometimes this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body doesn't need them, and old or damaged cells don't die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Growths on the skin can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Benign growths are not as harmful as malignant growths.

  • Benign growths (such as moles) are rarely a threat to life, generally can be removed, and usually don't grow back. They also don't invade the tissues around them and don't spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant growths (such as melanoma, basal cell cancer, or squamous cell cancer):
    • May be a threat to life
    • Often can be removed but sometimes grow back
    • May invade and damage nearby organs and tissues
    • May spread to other parts of the body

Risk Factors

When you're told that you have skin cancer, it's natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. The main risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to sunlight (UV radiation), but there are also other risk factors. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease. People with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop skin cancer. Some risk factors vary for the different types of skin cancer.

Studies have shown that the following are risk factors for the three most common types of skin cancer:

  • Sunlight: Sunlight is a source of UV radiation. It's the most important risk factor for any type of skin cancer. The sun's rays cause skin damage that can lead to cancer.
  • Severe, blistering sunburns: People who have had at least one severe, blistering sunburn are at increased risk of skin cancer. Although people who burn easily are more likely to have had sunburns as a child, sunburns during adulthood also increase the risk of skin cancer.
  • Lifetime sun exposure: The total amount of sun exposure over a lifetime is a risk factor for skin cancer.
  • Tanning: Although a tan slightly lowers the risk of sunburn, even people who tan well without sunburning have a higher risk of skin cancer because of more lifetime sun exposure.

Questions to Ask

  • What treatment choices do I have? What do you recommend and why?
  • What is the stage of the disease? Has the cancer spread? Do any lymph nodes or other organs show signs of cancer?
  • What are the benefits of each kind of treatment?
  • What can I do to prepare for treatment?
  • Will I need to stay in the hospital? How long?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment? How can side effects be managed?
  • What is the treatment likely to cost? Will my insurance cover it?
  • How will treatment affect my normal activities?
  • Would a research study (clinical trial) be a good choice for me?

Treatment

The most common treatments for skin cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

You may need a procedure called surgical lymph node biopsy to check if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. If it has, these lymph nodes may also need to be removed. A skin graft may be necessary after the surgery if a large area of skin is affected.

Chemo (which is short for chemotherapy) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells or to slow their growth. Some chemo can be given by I.V. (into a vein by a needle) and others are swallowed in pill form. Because chemo drugs travel to nearly all parts of the body, they are useful for cancer that has spread.

Radiation treatment is also used to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. It can be used alone or with surgery or chemo. Radiation treatment is like getting an x-ray. Or, sometimes it can be given by placing a "seed" inside the cancer to give off the radiation.

Summer 2013 Issue: Volume 8 Number 2 Page 5