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Skin Cancer Basics (Skin Cancer)
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Skin Cancer Basics

Jason K Rivers, BSc, FRCPC

Skin cancer is a condition where malignant cells develop on the outer layers of the skin. These typically develop in areas that are commonly exposed to the sunlight, such as the face, neck, hands, and the arms. Some people consider skin cancer to be a relatively minor health concern, and this is, for the most part, true. Most skin cancers are preventable, and easily cured when detected at an early stage, before it spreads to other organs inside the body.

It is truly unfortunate that skin cancer is still responsible for the death of a person in North America every hour. Basal cell cancers and squamous cell carcinomas can be cured in over 99% of cases given early detection and treatment. Taking simple basic steps to protect yourself can prevent these most common forms of cancer from turning into a potentially fatal disease.

Three types of skin Cancer:

Basal Cell Carcinoma:

Basal cell carcinomas are the most common forms of skin cancer, where lesions are seen on the head or neck area. These commonly appear in people who are 40 or older. These lesions are usually small, pearl coloured, and often bleed. Over time, they will increase in size. Basal carcinoma will rarely be fatal.

Squamous cell carcinoma:

Squamous cell carcinomas often develop in those who are 50 or older, and on sun-damaged skin. Actinic keratosis can later develop into squamous cell carcinomas, and will appear as a raised patch of skin, is red, and scaly. It can spread to other parts, and will require radiation therapy or surgical removal to treat.


Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and appears as a dark area on the skin. Shades can vary, between brown, black, and white, often featuring multiple colors. The average age of discovering melanoma is between 45 and 50, and its risks become higher as we age. Melanoma is often found on the back area for men, and on the legs for women. It can spread to other body parts through the blood or the lymph nodes, and needs to be treated immediately before this happens.

Prevention First:

The largest factor in skin cancer is a person’s exposure to the sun. Living in a location that is sunny year round will increase the chances of developing skin cancer. Related, sunburns from overexposure are also factors. Most people receive more than a quarter of their total exposure to the sun by the time that they are 18. Artificial sources of UV radiation such as tanning booths also cause the same amount of skin damage, and have the same harmful effects. Fair skinned people, and those with more moles or freckles, as well as those with family history of skin cancer are at increased risk of developing skin cancers.

The best treatment for skin cancer, by far, is prevention, and early detection. Limiting exposure to the sun is the most important step that you can take. Stay in the shade, and use sunscreens with a SPF of 15 or higher, even during the winter. Properly covering your skin with hats and sunglasses can also make a significant difference. A regular self-examination of your body for potential signs of skin cancer is key to early detection. Check your moles for any changes in appearance or sensitivity, and contact a dermatologist if you suspect that it may be skin cancer.


Treatments can vary depending on the cancer type, its progress, and location. In general, surgical removal is the standard treatment for skin cancer. However, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy are also used for those not suitable for surgery.


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