Skin Cancer | Overview

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What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. Fortunately, it is also the most curable. There are 2 forms of skin cancer: melanoma (the less common but more serious kind) and nonmelanoma (the more common, very treatable type). More than 1 million people will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year. Most will have nonmelanoma types of skin cancer. Almost all skin cancers are the result of too much exposure to ultraviolet light, which is found in sunlight and in lights used in tanning salons.

Why is the sun so bad for my skin?

The sun's rays, which are called ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays (UVA and UVB rays) damage your skin. This leads to early wrinkles, skin cancer and other skin problems.

Being in the sun too often for too long can lead to skin cancer, even if you don't burn. A tan is the body's attempt to protect itself from the sun's harmful rays.

Are tanning booths safer?

No. Tanning booths use ultraviolet rays. Makers of the booths may claim that they use "harmless" UVA rays. But both UVA and UVB rays cause skin damage. While UVA rays take longer than UVB rays to damage the skin, they go deeper into the skin than UVB rays.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It begins in skin cells called melanocytes (say: “mel-an-oh-sites”). Melanocytes produce the substance that gives your skin its color.

The body is made up of many types of cells. Normally, cells grow, divide and die. Sometimes, cells mutate (change) and begin to grow and divide more quickly than normal cells. Instead of dying, these abnormal cells clump together to form tumors. If these tumors are cancerous (also called "malignant"), they can invade and kill your body's healthy tissues. From these tumors, cancer cells can metastasize (spread) and form new tumors in other parts of the body. By contrast, noncancerous tumors (also called "benign") do not spread to other parts of the body.

Most other skin cancers don’t spread, but melanoma can spread through the whole body. If it is found early, it can be cured. If it is found late, it may cause death.

Bibliography

See a list of resources used in the development of this information.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 02/11
Created: 01/96

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