What’s the difference between melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer?

What's the difference between melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer-With the skin as the largest organ of the body, it is understandable skin cancer is the most common type of human cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be approximately 73,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in 2015 and 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer. In its basic form, cancer occurs when a previously normal cell undergoes a transformation and begins to grow abnormally and multiply. As the abnormal cells multiply they form a mass or tumor. If the tumor is malignant it will begin to invade neighboring tissues, restricting oxygen and vital nutrients needed for the surrounding tissues to survive. Malignant tumors may also metastasize or travel via the blood stream to other organs.

Many people consider skin cancer and melanoma to be synonymous when in fact melanoma is only one form of skin cancer. Melanoma is by far the most aggressive and deadly, and perhaps the most universally known. Melanoma begins in the cells found in the lowest layer of the epidermis referred to as the melanocytes. These cells are responsible for pigment within the skin giving it a brown color. Melanoma most often is found on the skin, even on areas normally not exposed to the sun, and can also start in other parts of the body such as the eyes or mouth. The risk of melanoma increases as people age.

The majority of skin cancer occurrences are non-melanoma with the two most common types being Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC). While they are malignant, they are far less likely to spread to other parts of the body and are more easily treated than melanoma. BCC forms in basal cells found in the middle layer of the epidermis while SCC surfaces in the upper layer in the squamous cells. BCC tends to grow more slowly while SCC has the ability to grow into deeper layers of the skin.

Non-melanoma skin cancers can usually be cured if identified and treated early. “When found early, melanoma is treatable but it is a diagnosis that must be monitored closely for life,” says Dr. Paul S. Dudrick, surgical oncologist with Premier Surgical Associates. “While the risk of recurrence goes down after 5 years, it never completely goes away. Patients must monitor their condition closely and quickly report any changes in skin condition or symptoms that could indicate a tumor.”

All types of skin cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma, can occur anywhere in the body. Melanoma is most commonly found on areas of the skin exposed to sunlight such as the face, neck, hands, lips, ears, back of the hands, and arms but can also surface in unexposed areas such as the scalp and bottoms of the feet. The most common step you can take in preventing skin cancer is avoiding overexposure to the sun and using sunscreen. However, considering most sun exposure occurs during the early years of life odds are you have already passed a significant opportunity in regards to prevention. The most effective way to increase your chance of survival from skin cancer is early detection and adequate treatment. Talk with your dermatologist or primary care physician if you have any questions about moles or unusual areas on the skin and conduct routine skin exams on yourself.

The surgeons at Premier Surgical Associates in Knoxville are certified by the American Board of Surgery and have specialized knowledge and skill relating to the diagnosis, pre-operative, operative, and post-operative management of surgical oncology issues, including skin cancer. Our experienced specialists offer a multidisciplinary approach to cancer care working to develop an individual plan of care for each patient.

To learn more about surgical oncology at Premier Surgical Associates visit our website.

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