Skin cancer is one of the more common types of cancer in the United States. Several forms of cancer impact different skin cells and pose varying levels of risk. Today, skin cancer is often a treatable – and preventable – disease, but that wasn’t always the case. Learn more about skin cancer and how to keep yourself and your family safe.

The Basics of Skin Cancer

Human skin is actually an organ by definition and the largest of the human body. It’s a fascinating body part with one main purpose; to protect us from UV rays, germs and the wide world. This role means that your skin is your main line of defense against various health risks, including cancer.

Skin is composed of several layers categorized into two main levels:

  • Epidermis – The outermost skin layers
  • Dermis – The innermost skin layers

The Most Common Types of Skin Cancer

There are three types of cancer considered the highest risk. Basal carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma impact cancer cells in the epidermis. These types of tumors are considered the most readily treatable types of cancer, though skin cancer treatments are expensive and prone to scarring.

Melanoma affects skin cells called melanocytes that border the epidermis and dermis layers. Its depth increases the risk of spreading cancer to other body parts, particularly vital organs. This is a contributing factor in melanoma’s ignominious role as the deadliest form of skin cancer.

What Causes Skin Cancer?

Most types of skin cancer are caused by prolonged exposure to UV rays. Natural sunlight, tanning and using indoor tanning bed increase the amount of UV damage to skin cells. This damage is exhibited in short-term damage like sunburns but also long-term affects like changing skin texture (wrinkles), premature aging and, in some cases, cancer.

Evidence shows that a small percentage of skin cancer cases are hereditary. Roughly 5-10% of melanoma cases, specifically, are likely caused by a pathogenic gene mutation, not UV exposure. Genetic factors may also increase the risk of skin cancer due to UV overexposure, especially in those with fair skin. Talk to family members and your health care provider about your hereditary skin cancer predisposition.

Related: What is Breast Cancer?

Diagnosis and Treatment

Skin cancer is usually diagnosed by visually inspecting skin growths like moles or freckles. Watch for changes in skin texture or coloring and talk to your healthcare provider about changes. They may recommend seeing a dermatologist for analysis. In many cases, patients will also have a small skin sample surgically removed and tested. This process, called a skin biopsy, can confirm a possible skin cancer diagnosis and help shape a treatment strategy.

Skin cancer treatment usually involves one or more processes, including:

  • Freezing skin cells with liquid nitrogen
  • Excisional surgery to remove the cancerous tissue
  • Mohs surgery, a more precise type of excisional surgery
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Biological therapy

Skin Cancer Statistics

Skin cancer remains the most common type of cancer in the US. Every year, roughly 4.3 million adults are treated for skin cancer. The total cost of skin cancer per year is approximately $4.8 billion.

Are skin cancer rates increasing?

Since 1999, rates of melanoma have increased from 15.1 in 100,000 to 22.7. The total number of melanoma diagnoses has more than doubled in the past two decades. Skin cancer rates are increasing the fastest in primarily northern states, including Vermont, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

Who is at the highest risk?

Skin cancer rates are higher in men than women. Men experience melanoma rates at 28.7 in 100,000 compared to 18.2 in women. Whites are significantly more likely to develop skin cancer compared to other ethnicities:

  • White: 29.4 per 100,000
  • Black: 0.9
  • American Indian/Alaska Native: 7.9
  • Asian and Pacific Islander: 1.2
  • Hispanic: 4.5

Are older Americans more likely to get skin cancer?

Melanoma rates are highest in Americans between 80-84 years old. When age groups are divided into 4-year spans, the top three age cohorts are 75 years to 85+. Skin cancer is likely the result of a lifetime of UV exposure; skin cancer rates in adults 25-29 are 25 times lower than in adults 80-84.

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