The most common form of cancer, skin cancer, also has one of the best prognoses of any form. The five-year survival rate is more than 95 percent, if the illness is properly and promptly treated.
As with most cancers, skin cancer can be most easily and most successfully treated at its early stages. Be alert for early signs such as change in the size of a mole or spot, emergence of new spots that are asymmetrical and have ragged edges, and rough, scaly brown or dark pink lesions on the face and hands. Moles that bleed also may be cancerous.
People with fair skin or who have lifestyles that involve a great deal of sunlight should get regular skin cancer screenings even if they have no symptoms. Discovering pre-cancerous signs before cancer develops is the best way to be sure.
When cancer is discovered, the most common treatment is simple surgery. It sounds drastic, but it’s actually relatively quick, and most patients make a complete recovery in a short amount of time. Surgery is used when the cancer is on the outer layers of skin– basal or squamous cells– and small enough that it can be completely removed. It’s less effective for melanoma, or for cancers that have spread out over a large area or are affecting other organs.
Surgery doesn’t even have to be particularly involved. Very small, early-stage cancers can be dealt with by cryosurgery, or freezing. Liquid nitrogen is applied to the cancer. As it thaws, the affected skin simply comes off, leaving healthy skin behind. Laser therapy can also be used in a similar way if the cancer is small and near the surface. Another treatment, photodynamic therapy, uses light in conjunction with medication that makes the cancer cells vulnerable to it. This treatment provides a certain degree of poetic justice.
Larger or recurring cancers may require what is called Moh’s surgery. In this procedure, layers of affected skin are removed one at a time. This takes less healthy skin while enabling doctors to completely remove the disease.
Radiation and chemotherapy are common cancer treatments, and they are effective against skin cancer as well. For skin cancer, chemotherapy may be topical, applied as a creme rather than in pill form.
If you think you might have skin cancer, talk to your doctor. The doctor can do the needed tests and, if you do have skin cancer, work with you to develop a treatment program that works for you.