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Can Skin Cancer Kill You?

24 July 2023

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Receiving a cancer diagnosis is enough to send your mind into an anxiety-fueled rabbit hole. But all cancer diagnoses aren’t the same. Some, whether it’s slow growth or early detection, have a high survival rate. 

In terms of skin cancer, where does it rank among fatal cases? This is a common question people ask. We examine how serious skin cancer is and how likely you are to survive if you or a family member recently received a diagnosis.

Know the types of skin cancer

Skin cancers are either described as melanoma or nonmelanoma. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are both nonmelanoma types of skin cancer that account for a majority of cases. However, it’s uncommon for nonmelanoma skin cancers to result in death.

Here are the three most common types of skin cancer:

Basal cell carcinoma: Basal cells form the lower layer of the epidermis, also known as the top layer of your skin. Over time, they migrate toward the top layer of the skin to form squamous cells. Skin cancer that develops in this layer accounts for 80 percent of cases. Basal cell carcinoma can present itself in many ways on the skin. Examples include raised, red patches of skin; small bumps that can either be pink or red, translucent, shiny or pearly; pink patches with raised edges; flat, pale areas of skin; or open sores that don’t heal.

Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous cells make up the top layer of the epidermis. This thick layer constantly sheds new cells, but they can grow out of control when cancer forms. This type of skin cancer usually appears as rough or scaly patches that are pink or red in color. They can also look like crusty sores. 

Melanoma: At the bottom of the epidermis, cells called melanocytes produce a pigment (melanin) that gives you the color of your skin. Melanin is also produced when exposed to UV rays to protect against sunburn. Melanoma forms in these cells and, while uncommon (accounts for 1 percent of skin cancer diagnoses), is the most dangerous type of skin cancer because it can metastasize and spread to distant organs.

Skin cancer survival rate

If skin cancer is contained and doesn’t spread to lymph nodes or other organs, the five-year survival rate is 99 percent. Even in the event of lymph node involvement, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is still 68 percent. This number dips to 30 percent if melanoma spreads to distant organs.

While it’s true skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. and it causes about 10,000 deaths per year – 8,000 from melanoma and 2,000 from nonmelanoma cancers – most of the fatal cases occur in older adults who’re diagnosed late.

That said, your chances of recovery are high as long as you recognize and treat skin cancer early.

Why is there such a high survival rate?

The reason skin cancer, especially nonmelanoma skin cancer, isn’t as deadly is due to a combination of early detection, slow growth and a low chance of relapse that typically ensures a high remission rate.

For example, most skin cancers occur in basal cells found in the epidermis, or the top layer of the skin. As a result, it’s easier to detect these growths during routine screenings.

Once detected, there are many successful treatment options available to remove the growth. Your doctor may choose to excise the growth by cutting out a small portion of your skin. For skin cancer that develops on your trunk, arms or legs, they can also scrape off cancerous cells using a process called curetting followed by electrodesiccation to destroy any cells that linger. Curettage and electrodesiccation is more difficult to perform on areas of skin with hair, such as the head, armpit or facial area.

Cryotherapy, which involves the use of liquid nitrogen to freeze off the growth, and light therapy are two non-surgical techniques to treat basal cell carcinoma.

Skin cancer that grows around the eyes or ears may be difficult to treat with traditional surgical methods because skin quantity is limited. As an alternative option, an advanced procedure called Mohs micrographic surgery removes one layer of skin at a time to ensure no excess skin is removed. 

Mohs surgery is a popular option for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma that is either large or aggressive or in areas of the body with little tissue (eyes, nose, ears, hands, feet or genitals). It can also treat lentigo malignant melanoma, a type of early melanoma that remains at the skin’s surface for quite some time.

Proper treatment using these techniques helps lower the risk of skin cancer returning in the future.

How fast does skin cancer grow?

Skin cancer is so slow growing that you may have it for years without even knowing it. And even if you do develop skin cancer, it usually stays in the same area without spreading. 

Basal cell carcinoma growth rate: Of the three common types of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma grows the slowest and rarely spreads. However, in the event it does, it can grow deep in your skin and injure nerves and blood vessels. In advanced cases of basal cell carcinoma, the growths can become so severe that they alter your appearance and change the way you look.

Squamous cell carcinoma growth rate: This type is still considered a slow-growing cancer, but it progresses faster than basal cell carcinoma. It can also spread to lymph nodes if left untreated.

Melanoma growth rate: Melanoma can grow rapidly in a matter of weeks. Left untreated, it can spread to distant organs such as the brain.

How to detect skin cancer

To stay on top of any potential skin changes, a primary care physician will examine your body during any wellness visits. You should also see a dermatologist once a year if you have more than 40 or 50 moles, have a history of tanning bed use or a history of severe sunburns. These are all risk factors for skin cancer.

“It is always important to catch skin cancers early especially melanomas since early detection is the best prevention from melanoma spreading widely and potentially killing you,” says Romeo Mandanas, M.D., physician at INTEGRIS Health Cancer Institute.

In between visits, you can perform skin self-exams to detect new or abnormal growths. Stand in front of a mirror in a well-lit room and carefully examine all areas of your skin. This includes the face, scalp, hands, arms, torso, upper back, lower back and legs. While skin cancer is most common in areas impacted by the sun (face, shoulders, back, arms and legs), you should also check hard-to-reach areas such as the armpits, fingernails and genital area.

In general, any new spots or changes to previous moles or blemishes should prompt a trip to your doctor, including alterations to size, shape and color.

Age spots vs. skin cancer

Knowing your own skin is key in distinguishing skin cancer from non-cancerous skin growths such as age spots. Each time you check your skin, make note of existing moles and blemishes. Learn their shape and color so you use it as a future benchmark. 

Age spots are flat, oval areas of increased pigmentation that occur when skin becomes overexposed to UV rays. Known medically as actinic lentigines, age spots are also called sun spots or liver spots. Age spots are larger than freckles (up to ½-inch in diameter) and range in color from tan to dark brown.

By comparison, spots that increase in size, change color (black or red), have an irregular border or bleed can be indications that you have developed skin cancer.

ABCDE of skin cancer

When looking for signs of basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer, key warning signs include new growths, spots or areas of skin that increase in size or sores that don’t heal quickly (most cuts, such as from shaving, heal in a week).

Warning signs of melanoma are much more specific, and the acronym ABCDE is a helpful reminder on what to look for. Any changes to a growth’s symmetry, border, color, size or evolution is usually a red flag.

  • Asymmetry: Melanoma usually presents as an irregular shape, meaning one side doesn’t match the other. Non-cancerous growths are usually symmetrical.
  • Border: Melanoma can have irregularly shaped, blurry, jagged, notched or ragged edges. Non-cancerous growths usually have smooth borders. 
  • Color: Melanoma can have many colors and varying shades. Non-cancerous growths are usually one color.
  • Diameter: Melanoma is usually larger than 6 millimeters or the size of a pencil eraser. Non-cancerous growths are usually smaller.
  • Evolution: Melanoma tends to change as cancer cells grow, whether that’s shape, color or size. Non-cancerous growths usually don’t evolve over time.

If you or your doctor suspect skin cancer, the next step is to perform a skin biopsy, a small procedure that removes a piece of skin to be analyzed for abnormal cells. A skin biopsy is the only way to confirm skin cancer.

Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and you should be proactive in keeping it healthy. If a new skin growth arises or you have a family history of skin cancer, ask your primary care physician to perform annual skin checks or ask for a referral to a dermatologist for further evaluation. Find a dermatologist near you today.

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