Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Tests For Skin Cancer

Submitted on March 27, 2012

As the body's largest organ, the skin has several important functions to perform. It protects the internal organs from harmful bacteria, viruses, and germs; it prevents injury to delicate vital organs; and it cools the body through sweat. The sensory power of the skin conveys to the brain, the need for warmth in winter, shade in summer, and the possibility of danger when it feels pain. Skin cancer is the result of an uncontrolled growth of cancerous cells in any of the different layers of the skin. Skin cancers are classified as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Although the two non-melanoma types are malignant, they are mostly curable and localized, and they do not spread to other parts of the body. The transformation and abnormal multiplication of the cells that produce melanin, which is the pigment related to skin coloring, results in melanoma.

This is a condition that more harmful than the other two forms of cancer, albeit most melanomas are diagnosed when they are at a localized stage and hence are treatable.

Tests Recommended

Changes in the shape, size, or feel of a mole or bump on the skin need to be examined by a dermatologist. After taking the medical history of a patient into consideration, the dermatologist may conduct a clinical examination of the skin around a mole or a lesion and may take a biopsy sample of the skin to be examined under a microscope for cancerous cells. In cases where the lymph nodes appear larger than usual, a sentinel lymph node biopsy may be needed to check for the spread of the cancer to other parts of the body. Skin cancer test may include biopsies of lumps or crusty sores;this needs to be done under local anesthesia.


Constant or frequent exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun is one of the main reasons behind skin cancer. Tanning lamps and exposure to high doses of X-rays and harmful chemicals like arsenic and radium are also known skin cancer causes.

Skin characteristics like freckles and a fair skin with little pigmentation can also increase the risk of skin cancer. Eye or hair color of individuals also plays a role in their susceptibility to contract skin cancer, as people with light colored eyes and those with blond hair appear to be more at risk. Genetic problems associated with skin pigmentation such as albinism and a family history of skin cancer can also raise the risk.


Skin cancers can be easily detected by a physical examination and by observation of changes in the pigmentation of the skin. Raised bumps that are shiny and smooth, with tiny blood vessels that are visible on the surface of the lesion, may appear on the skin that is most exposed to sunlight. A persistent sore that does not heal quickly or one that becomes hard and scaly should be brought to the attention of the attending physician. A mole or a dark brown spot on the skin that changes in shape or size also needs to be looked at by a medical practitioner as it could signal the start of skin cancer. Sudden raised moles, ulceration, itching, and bleeding of moles are skin cancer symptoms and warning signs that need to be taken seriously. A doctor may examine the lymph nodes to check if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body in case of melanomas. Along with other skin cancer symptoms, headaches, cough, and fever indicate low immunity and the need for urgent medical attention to deal with the cancer.


The choice of a skin cancer treatment method depends on the stage of the cancer, the type, size, location, the level of penetration of the cancerous lump, and the age and overall physical condition of the patient. Cryosurgery, which involves freezing the cancerous tissue in the case of superficial tumors, is a fairly simple procedure using liquid nitrogen. Since there is no cutting or bleeding involved, there is no need for anesthesia. Similarly, radiation therapy using X-rays can be done on patients who cannot or do not opt for surgery due to old age or health conditions. Excisional surgery by a surgeon involves cutting out the entire tumor with an adequate safety margin of the surrounding tissue so that the cancer does not reappear.

Laser therapy involves the use of laser beams to remove the cancerous tissue and can be a bloodless procedure. Photodynamic therapy uses a medication with a photosensitizing agent to highlight the affected area,after which a strong beam of light is directed to these areas to destroy the cancerous cells.The most popular treatment option is Mohs surgery, which uses a scalpel to remove the tumor.Every layer of the tissue is examined for cancerous cells and then removed from around tumor. If the cancerous cells are present in a layer, the next layer is removed until the microscope shows a layer devoid of the harmful cells. Equally effective is curettage and electro dissection, which involves removing the tumor and burning the layer of tissue below it with a cauterized needle to kill remaining cancer cells as well as to stop the blood flow.

Drugs targeted at cancer cells may be used in topical creams and lotions as part of the chemotherapy for skin cancer. For skin cancers that have metastasized, systemic chemotherapy may be the only solution. Biological therapy, on the other hand, stimulates the body's own immune system to destroy the harmful cancerous cells.