I've been diagnosed with skin cancer by my dermatologist, but I've been told it's nothing to worry about. So why does it sound so bad when I hear about it in the news?
One of the greatest things that the media have done for dermatology is help to raise skin cancer awareness. Unfortunately, it has not done a great job of making clear that there are different types of skin cancer. One of the most common misunderstandings about skin cancer is that it is synonymous with the word melanoma. Melanoma is a very specific type of skin cancer that arises from pigment-producing cells in the skin known as melanocytes. Melanomas, when found early, are very treatable, often with a simple in-office surgery. A melanoma that has been ignored for long periods of time or isn’t caught until after it has spread deeper in the skin or to other parts of the body, however, can be an extremely serious disease that endangers your health and, unfortunately, leads to death. That being said, if you've had a skin cancer and was told it's "nothing to worry about," it's likely that you had a type of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinomas are the most common type of skin cancer in the United States and worldwide. They arise from the cells that make up the bottommost layer of the skin, known as basal cells. Unlike melanomas, basal cell carcinomas grow very slowly and do not spread to other parts of the body. They often appear as small, shiny pink bumps with broken blood vessels on areas of frequent sun exposure, especially the head and neck. Lastly, another fairly common type of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. Like basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas have a strong relationship to long-term sun exposure and sun damage. They are more common in those who might have a weakened immune system, such as anyone taking anti-rejection medications for an organ transplant. Squamous cell carcinomas do have the potential for spreading to other parts of the body but in general are a much less aggressive type of skin cancer than melanoma. There are many other types of cancers that can arise in the skin, but basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are by far the most common, and together they affect more than 2 million Americans each year.