Skin cancer has two sides. On the one hand, it is fairly easy to detect and treat when done so at an early stage. On the other hand, when left untreated, skin cancer can cause disfigurement and even death. This is the dark side of skin cancer. Find out the sobering consequences of allowing skin cancer to develop into later stages.
Skin cancer starts on the surface of the skin, called the “epidermis.” Initially, it is the uncontrolled growth of skin cells, causing an abnormal growth. As it develops, skin cancer can move beyond the initial site and spread to surrounding skin and tissue, bones and other organs. Doctors rate the progression of skin cancer by various stages, from 0-4. The higher the number, the greater the spread of the cancer, with a Stage 4 cancer having spread to distant organs. If treated in early stages, there is a higher likelihood of completely removing the entire cancer, and the cancer has a much lesser likelihood of recurring. When left untreated until later stages, it becomes much harder to rid the body of the cancer and prevent illness and death.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are the most common types of cancer, but also the least likely to spread. In particular, BCCs rarely spread beyond the initial tumor site. However, left untreated, BCCs can grow deeper into the skin and damage surrounding skin, tissue, and bone. Occasionally, a BCC can become aggressive, spreading to other parts of the body and even becoming life threatening. Also, the longer you wait to have your BCC treated, the more likely it is to return after treatment. Like BCCs, SCCs are highly curable when caught and treated early. However, if left to develop without treatment, an SCC can become invasive to skin and tissue beyond the original skin cancer site, causing disfigurement and even death. Over 15,000 Americans die each year from SCCs. And even if untreated carcinomas don’t result in death, they can lead to large, open lesions on the skin that can cause discomfort, embarrassment, and infection.
The statistical evidence for the importance of early skin cancer treatment is overwhelming, especially for melanoma, one of the lesser common skin cancers, but the most deadly of them. When detected and treated early, the 5-year survival rate for those diagnosed with melanoma is 99%. The survival rate dips to 65% when the cancer reaches the lymph nodes and 25% when the disease spreads to other organs. Melanoma begins in the pigment producing cells of the skin, called “melanocytes.” Frequently, melanoma develops in abnormal moles. When melanoma is caught early when the cancer is just on the surface of the skin, the entire growth can usually be removed. However, melanoma can quickly grow beyond the surface of the skin, and when it does, it can reach the lymphatic vessels, which carry the cancer cells to distant parts of the body. Blood vessels can also carry cancer cells. Melanoma is most likely to spread to the lungs, bones, gastrointestinal tract, liver, and brain. Signs that you have Stage IV, or advanced melanoma are hard lymph nodes or hard bumps under the skin, unexplained tiredness or pain or weight loss, build-up of fluid in the abdomen and yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice). Early stage melanomas are easy to treat with a surgical excision of the skin cancer and some surrounding tissue and skin. Mid-stage melanomas require deeper surgical work to get all of the cancer cells removed. Late stage melanomas necessitate much broader cancer treatment, including multiple tumor removal, radiation therapy, drugs, immunotherapy or targeted therapy. At any stage, your doctor may do a biopsy of your lymph nodes to check on whether the melanoma has spread to the lymphatic system.
Don’t underestimate the power of your detection skills. Most skin cancers are caught because an individual has found an unusual spot or growth on his or her skin. Dermatologists recommend that you do a monthly self check to look for possible skin cancer. You should also schedule a yearly skin cancer screening with your dermatologist. With diligent preventative measures and these recommended checks for signs of skin cancer, you can eliminate the danger that skin cancer can pose to your health.
Contact Vanguard Dermatology in the greater New York City area to schedule an appointment with one of Vanguard’s board-certified dermatologists. At Vanguard, you can get a skin cancer screening, have skin growths removed and learn preventative measures against skin cancer.