Frequently Searched Questions: Skin Cancer

Our Dermatologists Answer Some of the Internet's Most-Searched Questions Related to Skin Cancer
Thursday, May 30, 2019 - 11:03am

You ask the internet a lot of questions and Roswell Park has some answers. Chair of the Department of Dermatology, Oscar Colegio, MD, PhD, and Assistant Professor of Oncology and Mohs Surgeon, Michael Bax, MD, sat down to answer some of the internet's most-searched-for questions related to skin cancer.

What does skin cancer look like?

The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, and each one has a typical appearance when it first shows up on the skin.

Basal cell (the most common type of skin cancer) usually looks like a pimple or a pink or red bump. Patients often describe it as a pimple that doesn't heal. We expect a pimple to go away within one to two weeks. If it doesn't, it could be a sign of an early skin cancer, and it should be checked out by a doctor or dermatologist.

On the other hand, squamous cell carcinoma often has the appearance of a wart-like growth on the skin, with a waxy appearance, and it sometimes has a crusty surface.

Melanoma is most commonly referred to as a growing or changing mole. A lot of melanomas develop from a new spot on the skin, but some can also develop from preexisting moles. That's why it's important to not only get to know your skin and the moles that you have but also be on the lookout for any new or changing spots that you develop, because early detection is critical for the treatment of melanoma.

How is skin cancer diagnosed?

People often come to Roswell Park with a new or changing growth on their skin that they or one of their physicians or providers is concerned about. If a dermatologist finds something of concern, the most effective way of diagnosing skin cancer is with a biopsy. It's a very simple outpatient procedure that's done in the clinic. The skin around the target area is anesthetized, or numbed up, with a little bit of Novocaine or lidocaine, and a small piece of the lesion (or sometimes the entire lesion) is removed and sent to someone who specializes in interpreting that type of biopsy specimen. A pathologist (at Roswell Park it's a dermatopathologist) will look at the specimen under the microscope and determine whether or not it is skin cancer.

What causes skin cancer?

Skin cancers can be caused by a variety of different agents or exposures, but the most common cause is exposure to sunlight, which is broken down into three types of rays: ultraviolet A, ultraviolet B and ultraviolet C.

Ultraviolet C, in large part, is filtered out before it actually gets to the surface of the earth. Overexposure to ultraviolet A and B can lead to mutations in the genetic makeup of skin cells. When the skin cells develop enough of those changes, the mutations begin multiplying out of control and the skin cells can become cancerous. That’s why it's important to protect your skin from the sun's ultraviolet rays when going outside. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every two hours, wear protective clothing — such as a long-sleeved shirt and a broad-brimmed hat — and seek shade during the warmest parts of the day.

Get your skin checked! | Thursday, June 27, 2019
If you've ever used indoor tanning beds, worked outdoors, or had blistering sunburns, you are at an increased risk for developing skin cancer. If you have a suspicious mole or spot, this is the perfect opportunity to get it checked out. Early detection is key. This event could save your life.

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Do tanning beds cause skin cancer?

The use of tanning beds has been in the news recently, as several states have banned their use for people under the age of 18, and that's for a good reason. We know that the type of ultraviolet radiation that we're exposed to in a tanning bed is a very intense exposure and is known to be a carcinogen, meaning it causes cancer in humans. In short, there is no safe way to tan, whether it be from tanning beds or natural sunlight.

Do all new moles need to be biopsied?

Different kinds of new moles can develop on our bodies throughout our lives, but many of them are benign, meaning they're not harmful. So, no, not all new moles need to be biopsied, but any new mole should definitely be pointed out to your physician or your dermatologist for close evaluation, because there are certain features that, if they're present within that new lesion, may indicate that it could turn into a cancerous growth. That’s why it's important to have a routine skin exam and point out anything new to your dermatologist, so that you can be met with some reassurance and vigilant follow-up or be referred for some type of diagnostic procedure, which may include a biopsy.