General Information about Skin Cancer

Skin cancer occurs when the cells in the skin are damaged and grow uncontrollably. The epidermis (which is the top layer of the skin) goes through a general cell cycle which involves the division, maturation, death, and eventual sloughing of the cells. A normal healthy skin cell cycle involves eventual repairs to damaged cells that promote skin growth and healthy division. If the body cannot successfully repair damaged skin cells, normal cycle is then interrupted and will uncontrollably divide and grow. This damage is usually due to long term sun exposure. Skin cancers can spread to other parts of the body.

Facts about Skin Cancer

  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.
  • Approximately one million Americans get diagnosed with skin cancer every year.
  • It has been known that 1 in 5 Americans and roughly 1 in 3 Caucasians will develop skin cancer throughout their life.
  • The leading cause of skin cancer is overexposure to the sun and anyone who has experienced more than 5 sunburns is twice as likely to develop skin cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer presents differently depending on the histology. In general, squamous cell carcinomas can present as a reddish skin change, a bump, ulceration, and may have bleeding. Basal cell carcinomas appear classically as a bump with pearl like changes. Melanomas normally are dark appearing lesions that may appear to be a bump or may be flat.

Helpful Terms Regarding Skin Cancer

  • Basal Cell - Carcinoma The most common form of skin cancer and is very curable. Arises from epithelial cells and rarely metastasizes: often associated with overexposure to sunlight.
  • Melanoma - A form of cancer that begins in melanocytes (cells that make the pigment melanin). It may begin as a mole (skin melanoma), but can also begin in other pigmented tissues, such as in the eye or in the intestines.
  • Merkel Cell Cacinoma - A rare and highly aggressive form of skin cancer. It is most common in older people and in people with weakened immune systems. This type of cancer has a high propensity to spread to other parts of the body.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma - Cancer that arises from squamous epithelium (tissue that forms the surface of the skin) and sometimes in the mucous membranes.

Treatment of Common Skin Cancer

Treatment for skin cancer can be based on a number of factors which include the type, location, size, and stage of the cancer.

Basal and Squamous Cell Carcinomas

  • Radiation Therapy
  • Surgical excision
  • Removed with scraping tool (often referred to as Moh's surgery)
  • Liquid nitrogen used to freeze skin cancer
  • Topical chemotherapeutic agent


  • Surgical excision
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are the side effects from radiation to the skin?

A: Radiation treatments are designed to be localized and site specific. For this reason, any potential side effects would be directly related to what area is being treated. Common concerns for skin cancer treatments with radiation include erythema (inflammatory redness of the skin), pigmentation (darkening of the skin due to increased production of melanin), and dry/moist desquamation. Side effects can range and vary depending on where the diseased skin may be located. Long term side effects include fibrosis (scarring) of the tissue and skin pigment changes.

Q: When do the side effects subside?

A: Generally, 1-2 months after radiation.

Q: What diet should I be on during radiation treatments?

A: In general, there are no diet restrictions when receiving radiation therapy for skin cancer. We do ask that you avoid sun exposure to the treated area to minimize side effects.

Q: What can I do to alleviate skin irritation?

A: We recommend that during the course of radiation the patient apply alcohol-free 100% aloe vera gel and/or Nivea cream. If there is moist peeling some patients may need a special antibiotic cream.