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Skin Cancer Q&A Sheet

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer occurs when abnormal skin cells begin to grow out of control.  While normal cells divide and develop in an orderly fashion, cancer cells do not.  Skin cancer cells may penetrate or invade surrounding tissue.  They may also spread to other parts of the body through the blood or lymphatic systems.  As cancer cells continue to grow, they crowd out normal cells and often form into a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.  These growths may inhibit normal body function by blocking up internal organs or blood vessels, or destroying nerve pathways, etc.  Skin cancer (mostly melanoma) can sometimes lead to death.

What causes skin cancer?

The chief cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) radiation.  While the sun serves as the major source of UV radiation, tanning beds and some welding equipment also produce these harmful rays.  Of special note, the federal government classifies UV rays as a “known human carcinogen.” Thus UV rays are classified in the same cancer-causing group that includes arsenic, asbestos, and tobacco smoke.

Are there different types of skin cancer?

There are three major types of skin cancer:  Basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.  BCC is most common while melanoma is least common.  These skin cancers are named according to the specific cells from which they originate.

Melanoma can be quite deadly if left untreated in its early stages.  In contrast, less than 1% of individuals with SCC die from this disease.  BCC very rarely results in death.  Yet, if not treated in time, many skin cancers can lead to some disfigurement based on the amount of damaged skin a physician has to remove.

Do a lot of California residents get skin cancer?

Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer both in California and across the nation.  Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer in California then the combined total of new cases for the next 12 most common cancers, including cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, and colon.  Approximately 128,000 Californians will get skin cancer this year.  One of every five persons in California is expected to eventually get skin cancer.

Do UV rays hurt children more than adults?

UV rays harm both children and adults.  But a child’s skin, particularly before age ten, is especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of solar radiation.  Both childhood sunburns and tanning increase a child’s risk of developing skin cancer as an adult.  Sunburns and tanning are outward signs of internal skin damage.

When and under what circumstances are cancer-causing UV rays more intense?

UV rays are stronger per the following conditions:

  • Daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • From mid-spring through mid-fall
  • At higher altitudes (concentrating an extra 6% per 1,000 feet gain in elevation)
  • With lack of thick cloud cover
  • What does skin cancer look like?

    Without specialized medical training, an individual should not expect to be able to determine if a growth or other abnormality appearing on the skin is indeed skin cancer.  A person who observes such irregularities on the skin should see a dermatologist (skin doctor).  Skin cancer can appear in various forms including a shiny bump; an open sore that may crust and bleed; a reddish patch; a growth with an elevated, rolled border and an indented center; a scaly red patch with irregular borders; or a wart-like growth.  Melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer - which often appears near or within a mole - may have one or more of these features: asymmetry, jagged border, multiple colors, or large size (larger then a standard pencil eraser).

    How can a person prevent skin cancer?

    While a small amount of sun exposure can help maintain one’s health, an individual should usually keep a barrier between him or herself and the sun.  Recommended practices include:

  • Decrease time spent outdoors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear full-length clothing and a hat with a wide brim and neck flaps.
  • Wear UV-protective sunglasses.
  • Seek shade when outdoors.
  • Apply sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) to exposed skin.
  • Use lip balm (SPF 30 or higher).
  • Avoid tanning beds.
    Note: “SPF” = sun protection factor (the relative ability of sunscreen to prevent sunburn).
  • How do they treat skin cancer?

    In many cases, skin cancer is surgically removed.  Other options include:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Electrodesiccation (destruction by heat)
  • Cryosurgery (destruction by freezing)
  • Laser treatment
  • Topical medicine
  • Drug therapy 
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    Last modified on: 7/3/2012 8:09 AM