Skin Cancer

Facial Skin Cancer

Reviewed by Heidi A. Waldorf, MD

More than 2 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Many of these cancers develop on the face, head or neck because these are the areas that are most exposed to the sun's ultraviolet rays, a known risk factor for skin cancer.

The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of their lifetime; of those living to the age of 65, between 40 and 50 percent will have skin cancer at least once.

Courtesy of AAFPRS

The rates of skin cancer have been on the rise for many years, but the good news is that deaths from skin cancer have dropped by about 30 percent over the last 30 years. This is due to enhanced skin cancer prevention, early detection and better treatments.

Skin Cancer Types

There are three basic types of skin carcinomas: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Basal cell carcinomas (BCC) account for about 80 percent of all skin cancers. BCCs arise in the round basal cells that form the deepest layer of the epidermis. They typically occur in areas of the body that receive the most sunlight, such as the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders and back. Easily treated in their early stages and rarely fatal, BCCs can be highly disfiguring if allowed to grow. The larger the tumor grows, the more extensive the treatment needed.

Squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) occur much less frequently than basal cell carcinomas, comprising approximately 20 percent of all skin cancer cases. SCCs form in the flat squamous cells that form the skin's upper layers, and are most common in areas of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun. But SCCs can be found in other areas as well, such as the hands, arms, legs, mucous membranes and genitals. Most squamous cell carcinomas are local; however, they can metastasize, or spread, particularly in immunosuppressed patients.

Melanoma is the rarest and most deadly form of skin cancer. Approximately three out of four skin cancer deaths are from melanoma, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, but if detected and treated early (melanoma in situ), it is nearly 100 percent curable. If left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body. Once it has spread to other organs and lymph nodes, malignant melanoma is very difficult to treat and is often fatal. Melanoma originates in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) that give skin, hair and eyes their color. Melanomas are most commonly irregularly-colored black or brown, but they can also be red or skin toned. Risk factors for melanoma include sun exposure, skin type, number of moles on the skin and a family history of melanoma.

To learn more about skin cancer surgery, visit our comprehensive article on skin cancer treatment.

About the Reviewer of this Article

Heidi A. Waldorf, MD, is the director of Laser and Cosmetic Dermatology at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, NY, and an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Dermatology at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and received her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. After completing her internship training at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and her residency in the Department of Dermatology at Harvard University School of Medicine, Dr. Waldorf completed a fellowship program in Mohs Micrographic Surgery, Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatologic Surgery. She is a diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology, a fellow of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery, a fellow of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, a member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, and a fellow of the American College of Mohs Micrographic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology. Dr. Waldorf sees patients at her offices in New York, NY, and Nanuet, NY.

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