What is skin cancer, and am I at risk?

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the US. It affects men and women of all ages and skin colors, and will affect 20% of the population at some point during their lifetime. There are three common types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. 

The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma (BCC). BCC are almost always due to sun exposure; infrequently they can form due to certain types of burns, scars, or skin diseases. BCC is rarely life-threatening but it can grow and damage surrounding tissue, leading to considerable destruction and disfigurement. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common type of skin cancer. SCC is also caused by exposure to ultraviolet light, from both the sun and tanning beds. SCCs grow and destroy the skin and, while uncommon, if left untreated some can get large and deep enough to spread to other parts of the body. Both BCC and SCC have a more than 95% cure rate if treated early.

The most serious form of skin cancer is melanoma. It is the least common of the three types, but the incidence is increasing. If caught and treated early, melanoma can be cured. However, if it is not caught in time it can spread to other organs and can be fatal. Melanoma often, but not always, occurs on sun-exposed skin. There are both environmental (sun exposure) and genetic factors involved in the development of melanoma, so it is important to practice safe sun habits and check your skin regularly. The risk of developing melanoma is higher if you have fair skin and eyes, many moles on your skin, or a family history of melanoma.

Jordana Gilman