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Skin Cancer, Nonmelanoma


Topic Overview

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This topic is about nonmelanoma skin cancer, including basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer. For information about melanoma skin cancer, see the topic Skin Cancer, Melanoma.

What is nonmelanoma skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the skin. It is the most common type of cancer. It is almost always cured when it is found early and treated. So it is important to see your doctor if you have changes in your skin.

Most skin cancers are the nonmelanoma type. There are two main types of nonmelanoma skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinomaClick here to see an illustration.. Most nonmelanoma cancers are this type. It can damage deeper tissues, such as muscles and bones. It almost never spreads to other parts of the body.
  • Squamous cell carcinomaClick here to see an illustration.. This type is less common. It often starts in skin that has been injured or diseased. It sometimes spreads to other parts of the body.

There are other types of skin cancer that are not melanoma. But these are much less common. They include Merkel cell carcinoma and several kinds of sarcomas.

What causes it?

Nonmelanoma skin cancer is usually caused by too much sun. Using tanning beds or sunlamps too much can also cause it.

How is nonmelanoma skin cancer diagnosed?

Skin cancer usually appears as a growth that changes in color, shape, or size. This can be a sore that does not heal or a change in a wart or a mole. These changes usually happen in areas that get the most sun—your head, neck, back, chest, or shoulders. The most common place for skin cancer is your nose.

Your doctor will use a biopsy to find out if you have skin cancer. This means taking a sample of the growth and sending it to a lab to see if it contains cancer cells.

What increases my risk for nonmelanoma skin cancer?

If you have light skin that sunburns easily, you are more likely to get skin cancer.

Your risk is higher if you are male or if you are over 40. Your risk is higher if others in your family have had it or if you have had it before.

You may also be more likely to get it if you have been exposed often to strong X-rays, to certain chemicals (such as arsenic, coal tar, and creosote), or to radioactive substances (such as radium).

How is it treated?

Your doctor will want to remove all of the cancer. There are several ways to do this. The most common way is to numb your skin so that it does not hurt, then cut out the cancer. You will be awake while this is done.

This surgery almost always cures nonmelanoma skin cancer.

After your treatment, you will need regular checkups because having skin cancer once means you are more likely to get it again.

Can nonmelanoma skin cancer be prevented?

You can prevent it by being careful in the sun. Stay out of the sun at midday, when the sun's rays are strongest. Wear sunscreen or other sun protection. Do not use tanning booths or sunlamps.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about skin cancer:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Living with skin cancer:

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