First, for some clarification, because before we talk in depth about non-melanoma skin cancer, from its causes to its cure options to symptoms, skin cancer prognoses, and everything in between, it's important to clearly distinguish melanoma from non-melanoma skin cancer.
Melanoma skin cancer is a very serious and deadly disease. It occurs in the melanocyte cells, which are the cells that produce melanin, and the resulting melanomas can rapidly spread and metastasize, necessitating aggressive and invasive treatment and with only a 25% survival rate if the cancer spreads far enough to reach other organs. (Caught and treated early, however, even deadly melanoma has a five-year survival rate of 99%.)
Non-melanoma skin cancer can be quite serious as well, but the progression is usually much slower than with melanoma cancer. The more you know about the disease, the better your chances for getting treatment that leads to a complete cure, so let's begin with a quick overview of the different types of non-melanoma skin cancer:
Basal Cell Carcinoma - This is the most common type of skin cancer seen in Americans, and occurs in basal cells, which are located in the lower epidermis, which is the outer layer of the skin. Basal cells are responsible for producing new skin cells, and as they are so close to the surface of the skin, they are easily damaged by UV light exposure.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma - The second most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer, squamous cell cancer occurs when the DNA in the squamous cells, which are found in the middle dermis skin layers. Again UV exposure is the primary cause of squamous cell carcinomas, but this cancer can occur on the bottoms of feet, in genital areas, and even inside the mouth.
Merkel Cell Carcinoma - Merkel cell skin cancer usually only afflicts older people with compromised immune systems, and can spread rapidly when it does so. This rare skin cancer almost always appears on the neck, face, or head, and at presents its causes are not fully understood.
Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma - This cancer presents itself in the skin but actually forms in white blood cells. It is uncommon and very slow growing, with many people unaware of the cancer for many years. It is a non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Basal cell carcinoma, or BCC, is the most common skin cancer and it is highly treatable. As with any cancer (and with any ailment writ large), the sooner you identify and start treatment of BCC, the better your chances for achieving the usual 99% or better cure rate. Basal cell cancer spreads slowly and rarely metastasizes, but if left unchecked for a long period of time, it can spread down deeper into the skin, causing disfigurement issues after treatment, or even into bones, where it can become a much more serious and even life threatening issue.
Like BCC, squamous cell carcinoma (or SCC) is very treatable and survivable if caught early on in its progression. This second most common type of skin cancer can spread quickly, but can be treated completely if caught fast enough. It is not more deadly than BCC save for the aggressive spread, so rapid intervention is all the more important. If SCC does penetrate down into bone or other organs, the five-year survival rate begins to reduce.
From here on, we will focus only on basal cell skin cancer and squamous cell skin cancer, as these are far and away the most common types of skin cancer. If you look at photos of skin cancer to see if you are exhibiting symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancer, here are the most common skin cancer symptoms you will see:
Sores or Lesions - An unexplained wound on your skin, such as an oozing sore, a breakage over an older scar, or a reddish wound without known cause, may well be a sign of skin cancer, especially if the wound does not heal as expected over time.
Raised Bumps - Skin cancer often presents itself in the form of raised bumps with a shiny exterior and a pink or reddish coloration. These will be especially prominent in areas regularly exposed to sunlight; skin cancer on the nose, ears, and neck often shows up as a raised bump.
Irregular Moles - Watch for changes to existing moles or the appearance of new moles, paying close attention to any mole with irregular borders, uneven coloring or depth, noticeable growth or changes in shape, or moles of an unusually large size.
Flaky or Waxen Patches - Often mistaken for age spots, if you see a patch of skin that looks yellowish and waxy and that tends to flake off from time to time, that is a common symptom of skin cancer that must be heeded with a checkup.
Non-melanoma skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell are quite common. In fact, one in four Americans will develop non-melanoma skin cancer at some point, so even if you never deal with the disease yourself it's almost impossible to foresee this type of cancer not affecting someone dear to you. But for reference, non-melanoma skin cancer need not be a serious concern when good treatment is sought: melanoma accounts for only about five out of 100 skin cancer cases, yet for more than 75 out of 100 skin cancer-related deaths.
Your genes play very little of a role in dictating whether or not you will develop non-melanoma skin cancer aside from the fact that people with fair skin are at a greater risk for the disease. Lifestyle is far and away the greater cause of skin cancer, with extended and frequent exposure to UV light the leading cause of skin cancer.
To reduce your chance of getting skin cancer, you must reduce your exposure to ultraviolet light. This means wearing sunblock and covering clothing when in the sun, completely avoiding tanning beds and other artificial UV lights, and even applying UV-blocking window tint to your vehicle and home or workplace. Just a few bad sunburns can increase the chance of skin cancer, as can prolonged UV exposure even without a burn.
There are a plethora of treatment options for non-melanoma skin cancer, and the more you know about your skin cancer treatment choices, the better prepared you and your dermatologist and the other healthcare professionals on your team will be ready to choose the best treatment for skin cancer for you. Some of the most common non-melanoma skin cancer treatments are:
Topical Chemotherapy - For skin cancers that have not spread, topical drugs may be sufficient to kill off the cancer. Creams with anti-cancer agents can be applied to the skin and may be effective in some cases.
Cryosurgery - For smaller and newly developed carcinomas, doctors may recommend using liquid nitrogen to freeze the cancerous growth, causing it to slough away. Some cancer is sometimes left behind, but in many cases this is a complete cure.
Excisions Surgery - A traditional approach to skin cancer treatment, surgery simply involves cutting away the carcinoma, often with a good deal of healthy tissue removed for good measure; this is a highly effective treatment, but can leave behind unsightly scarring.
Mohs Surgery - Mohs surgery involves much finer slices of cancerous tissue removed and then immediately lab tested on site so the surgeon can remove as little tissue as possible but can be sure all of the cancer is removed. Often considered a best treatment for skin cancer, it has a 98% cure rate for non-melanoma cancers.
Superficial Radiation Therapy - Also called X-ray therapy (or SRT), Superficial Radiation Therapy uses concentrated, safe doses of radiation to kill off skin cancer without causing damage to healthy tissue. Superficial Radiation Therapy is as effective as Mohs surgery and is rapidly gaining ground among skin cancer specialists.
While Mohs surgery is a tried-and-true cure for skin cancer that is minimally invasive, many people today think Superficial Radiation Therapy is better than Mohs surgery for several reasons:
It Is Completely Noninvasive Skin Cancer Treatment - SRT is so noninvasive that there is not even a need for local pain-blocking anesthetic at the treatment site, and no other healthy tissue is damaged.
It Is Safe for People With Clotting Issues - Mohs surgery is noninvasive in most cases, but it's still surgery, so people with bleeding issues may not be candidates.
It Is an Outpatient Procedure Without Recovery Time - You can have SRT performed at your doctor's office and then get in with your day, shopping, dining, golfing, or just heading home.
It Is Highly Effective - For most patients with non-melanoma skin cancer, Superficial Radiation Therapy is as effective as Mohs surgery, achieving a 98% cure rate after a few sessions which can be conducted with a device like the FDA-cleared SRT-100 developed by Sensus Healthcare and in use by skin cancer doctors around the nation and around the world.