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6 Common Cancers - Skin Cancer

Brittany Lietz, Miss Maryland

Brittany Lietz, Miss Maryland, has had two dozen surgeries for melanoma — and now spreads the word about skin cancer and the dangers of tanning and tanning beds.
Photo: AP Photo/Herald-Mail, Kevin G. Gilbert

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The two most common types are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma (the names come from the type of cells in which the cancer begins). They usually form on the head, face, neck, hands, and arms. Another type of skin cancer, melanoma, is less common than the others, but far more dangerous — even deadly. It involves the cells that produce the skin pigment melanin, which is responsible for skin and hair color. Melanoma can spread very rapidly, and the incidence of melanoma in the United States is steadily increasing. It is the leading cause of death from skin disease.

The development of melanoma is related to sun exposure, particularly to sunburns during childhood. It is most common among people with fair skin, blue or green eyes, and red or blond hair.

Screening and Diagnosis

Melanoma may appear on normal skin, or it may begin in a mole or other area that has changed in appearance. Some moles present at birth may develop into melanomas. The primary symptom of any skin cancer is usually a mole, sore, lump, or growth on the skin. Any change in appearance of a pigmented skin growth over time is a warning sign. Also, watch for any bleeding from a skin growth.

The ABCD system may help you remember features that might be symptoms of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: One half of the abnormal area is different from the other half.
  • Borders: The lesion or growth has irregular edges.
  • Color: Color changes from one area to another, with shades of tan, brown, or black (sometimes white, red, or blue). A mixture of colors may appear within one growth.
  • Diameter: The trouble spot is usually (but not always) larger than 6 mm in diameter — about the size of a pencil eraser.

The key to treating melanoma is recognizing symptoms early. You might not notice a small spot of concern if you don't look carefully, so perform thorough self-examinations on a regular basis.


To treat melanoma, the cancerous skin cells and a portion of the normal surrounding skin usually have to be surgically removed. 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.

Only the smallest and most shallow melanomas can be cured by surgery alone, so early diagnosis is very important. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy (use of medications that stimulate the immune system, such as interferon) may be recommended in addition to surgery. If the skin cancer is deeper than 4mm or the lymph nodes have cancer, there is a high risk of the cancer spreading to other tissues and organs. After surgery, treatment with interferon, a class of drugs that helps your immune system fight off the cancer, may be useful for these patients.

Research: What's New

  • Lymphatic mapping and sentinel lymph node biopsy: In 2006, an NCI study showed that a technique called lymphatic mapping and sentinel lymph node biopsy helped some melanoma patients live longer without a recurrence of their disease. The technique looks for cancer in the first lymph node to receive lymphatic drainage from a tumor, called the "sentinel node." If there are cancer cells in the sentinel node, doctors completely remove all nearby lymph nodes. The study found that this technique was better than watching and waiting for evidence of lymph node metastasis before removing the nearby lymph nodes.
  • Sensitized T cells: NCI researchers recently genetically engineered some melanoma patients' white blood cells to recognize and attack their own cancer cells. The NCI researchers, led by Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., sought an effective way to convert normal white blood cells (lymphocytes) in the lab into cancer-fighting cells. To do this, they drew a small sample of blood that contained normal lymphocytes from individual patients and infected the cells with a retrovirus in the laboratory. The retrovirus acted like a carrier pigeon to deliver a gene encoding a specific protein, called a T cell receptor (TCR), into the cells. The TCR used in this study recognizes and binds to a certain molecule found on the surface of melanoma cells. When the modified lymphocytes were reintroduced into the patients' bloodstreams, they were activated to destroy melanoma cells. The research demonstrated a successful regression of advanced melanoma.

Read More "6 Common Cancers" Articles
Lung Cancer / Breast Cancer / Prostate Cancer / Colorectal Cancer / Skin Cancer / Gynecologic Cancers

Spring 2007 Issue: Volume 2 Number 2 Page 12