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Melanoma Monday: Everything you need to know about skin cancer

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Skin cancer is a disease characterized by an abnormal development of skin cells. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed in over 2 million people every year. New skin cancer diagnoses in the United States outnumber that of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined, reports the Environmental Protection Agency.

Types of skin cancer
There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Basal and squamous cell skin cancers (considered non-melanomas) start at the base of the skin's outer layer (the epidermis) in the basal and squamous cells.

Melanoma skin cancer starts in the cells that produce skin coloring, the melanocytes. Although less common, melanoma is the most severe type of skin cancer, accounting for near 9,000 of the 12,000 skin cancers deaths each year, according to the American Cancer Society. The overall five-year survival rate for melanoma is 91 percent.

Causes
Ultraviolet radiation exposure from sunlight damages the DNA in skin cells, causing skin cancer. Julie Moore, a dermatologist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, says that recent research reinforces that the sun exposure received early in life directly correlates to basal cell carcinoma.

If you spend a lot of time in the sun, use tanning beds or live in a region with intense sunlight (the Caribbean, northern Australia), you have a far greater chance of contracting the disease. Dermatologist Coyle Connolly says recent research shows a disturbing link between sun and tanning bed radiation and the subsequent development of skin cancer.

Caucasians are 10 times more likely to develop melanoma than African Americans. Whites with fair, sunburn-susceptible skin and freckles are the most likely to develop skin cancer. Men are at a greater risk of developing skin cancer than women. Exposure to chemicals such arsenic, coal and industrial tar has been argued to increase your risk status.

To help prevent skin cancer, you should seek shade during midday hours, wear protective clothing (such as hats and sunglasses), apply sun screen with at least SPF 15 and UVA/UVB protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises.

Symptoms
The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that basal cell carcinoma's symptoms include a non-healing open sore, a reddish patch, a shiny bump, a pink growth or a scar-like area. These can resemble other skin conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema, so you should visit a medical professional to determine the underlying cause.

Squamous cell carcinomas usually manifest as a thick, scaly patch that can crust or ooze. Elevated or wart-like growths and persistent open sores that sporadically bleed are two other common symptoms.

Although brown spots and moles are typically harmless, atypical moles can be an early sign of melanoma. Cancerous moles may be asymmetrical, have uneven borders, vary in color, have a diameter larger than one-fourth of an inch and evolve over time. Bleeding, itching and crusting can also occur.

Diagnosis
A dermatologist must examine the skin for the above symptoms to properly diagnose a patient. The American Academy of Dermatology explains that a dermatologist will use a dermoscope--a device that illuminates and magnifies skin--to analyze pigment and structures. If she or he finds a potentially cancerous piece of skin, the doctor will perform a biopsy: extract the questionable skin and send it to a lab for testing. This quick and easy procedure can determine whether the patient has cancer.

"Skin cancer research tells us that diagnoses are happening in younger patients and also earlier in the disease so that the recovery and survival rate is greater," reports Moore.

Treatment
The National Cancer Institute documented the four standard treatments for non-melanoma skin cancer: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and photodynamic therapy.

With Mohs micrographic surgery, the surgeon cuts thin layers from the skin until all visible cancer cells have been removed. This technique minimizes the amount of healthy skin removed. Other surgeries include electrodesiccation and curettage, simple excision, shave excision, cryosurgery, laser surgery and dermabrasion

Radiation therapy kills cancer sells with high-energy X-rays and other forms of radiation.

Chemotherapy uses drugs--taken by mouth or injected into the muscle or vein--to halt cancer cell growth.

Photodynamic therapy attempts to kill cancer cells with a drug and a laser light. After the drug is ingested, a light is shined onto the skin, activating the drug to destroy cancerous cells.

Treatment for melanoma skin cancer differs but some of the methods are the same. The four standard approaches to curing melanoma are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and biologic therapy. Surgery is the first step for melanoma at all stages of development. Each surgical procedure seeks to remove the tumor: local excision, wide local excision, lymphadenectomy, skin grafting and sentinel lymph node biopsy.

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy seek the same ends for melanoma skin cancer as non-melanoma skin cancer. Biologic therapy, also called immunotherapy, battles the cancer with the patient's immune system. This treatment seeks to revive the body's natural defenses.

For more information, you can visit the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute or the Skin Cancer Foundation.