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Skin Cancer Facts

What is the skin?

The skin is the largest organ of the body. It covers the internal organs and protects them from injury, serves as a barrier to germs such as bacteria, and helps prevent fluid loss. The skin helps control body temperature and gets rid of certain body wastes. Cells in the skin communicate with the brain and allow temperature, touch, and pain sensations.

How many people get skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. It accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. More than 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in this country each year. Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, will account for more than 76,000 cases of skin cancer in 2014.

What are basal and squamous cell skin cancers?

These types of skin cancer are called non-melanomas to set them apart from the more serious type of skin cancer, melanoma. They usually start in the basal cells or squamous cells, which is how they get their names. These cells are found at the base of the outer layer of the skin.

Most basal and squamous cell cancers develop on sun-exposed areas of the skin, like the face, ear, neck, lips, and the backs of the hands. Depending on the type, they can be fast or slow growing, but they rarely spread to other parts of the body.

Basal cell or squamous cell cancers can be cured if found and treated early – when they are small and have not spread.

You can learn more about these skin cancers in our document called Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell.

What is melanoma skin cancer?

Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the melanocytes – the cells that produce the skin coloring or pigment known as melanin. Melanin helps protect the deeper layers of the skin from the harmful effects of the sun.

Melanoma is almost always curable when it’s found in its very early stages. Although melanoma accounts for only a small percentage of skin cancer, it’s far more aggressive than other skin cancers and causes most skin cancer deaths. Though it most often affects the skin (including under the nails), melanoma can start in the eyes, mouth, genital, or anal areas, too.

Melanoma will account for more than 76,000 cases of invasive skin cancer in 2014. It accounts for more than 9,700 of the nearly 13,000 skin cancer deaths each year.

The overall 5-year relative survival rate for melanoma is 91%. For localized melanoma, it’s 98%; survival rates for regional and distant stage diseases are 62% and 16%, respectively. About 84% of melanomas are diagnosed at a localized stage.

You can learn more in our document called Melanoma Skin Cancer.

Other types of skin cancer

There are a few rare types of skin cancer such as keratoacanthomas, Merkel cell carcinoma, skin lymphoma, Kaposi sarcoma, skin adnexal tumors, and sarcomas. These are all non-melanoma types. You can find out more about these on our web site or call us for more information.

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

Risk factors for non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers include:

  • Unprotected and/or excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (sunlight or tanning booths and lamps)
  • Pale skin (easily sunburned, doesn’t tan much or at all, natural red or blond hair)
  • Workplace exposure to coal tar, pitch, creosote, arsenic compounds, or radium
  • You or other members of your family have had skin cancers
  • Multiple or unusual moles
  • Severe sunburns in the past

What are the signs and symptoms of skin cancer?

Skin cancer can be found early, and both doctors and patients play important roles in finding skin cancer. If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor:

  • Any change on your skin, especially in the size or color of a mole, growth, or spot, or a new growth (even if it has no color)
  • Scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or a change in the way a bump or nodule looks
  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • The spread of pigmentation (color) beyond its border, such as dark coloring that spreads past the edge of a mole or mark
  • A change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain

Can skin cancer be prevented?

The best ways to lower the risk of skin cancer are to avoid long exposure to intense sunlight and practice sun safety. You can still exercise and enjoy the outdoors while using sun safety at the same time. Here are some ways to be sun safe:

  • Avoid direct exposure to the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Teach children the shadow rule: if your shadow is shorter than you, the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
  • Seek shade, especially in the middle of the day when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Follow the Slip! Slop! Slap!® and Wrap! rules:
  • Slip on a shirt: Cover up with protective clothing to guard as much skin as possible when you’re out in the sun. Choose comfortable clothes made of tightly woven fabrics that you can’t see through when held up to a light.
  • Slop on sunscreen: Use sunscreen and lip balm with broad spectrum protection and a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Apply a generous amount of sunscreen (about a palmful) to unprotected skin at least 30 minutes before outdoor activities. Reapply every 2 hours and after swimming, toweling dry, or sweating.
  • Slap on a hat: Cover your head with a wide-brimmed hat, shading your face, ears, and neck. If you choose a baseball cap, remember to protect your ears and neck with sunscreen.
  • Wrap on sunglasses: Wear sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB absorption to protect your eyes and the surrounding skin.
  • Sunscreen doesn’t protect from all UV rays, so don’t use sunscreen as a way to stay out in the sun longer.
  • Follow these practices to protect your skin even on cloudy or overcast days. UV rays travel through clouds.
  • Avoid other sources of UV light. Tanning beds and sun lamps are dangerous. They damage your skin and can cause cancer.

What is the American Cancer Society doing about skin cancer?

  • Education: The Society delivers high quality health information to the public so that people can make informed personal decisions. Examples include: printed materials; media coverage; community-based outreach programs; and free, nationwide services such as www.cancer.org and our 24-hour cancer information center at 1-800-227-2345.
  • Advocacy: With the help of grassroots volunteers in communities across the country, the Society advocates with lawmakers at both the state and federal levels to enact responsible health policies and increase funding for research, testing, and treatment coverage. The ACS Cancer Action Network (the Society’s non-profit, non-partisan advocacy affiliate) has asked the FDA to review how it regulates tanning beds to reflect their known dangers in increasing melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer risk, and supports legislation banning minors from using indoor tanning beds.
  • Service: The Society works to improve quality of life for people living with cancer through a variety of support services and programs helping patients and families cope with the disease.
  • Society also collaborates with many nationwide organizations to promote skin cancer prevention, education, and sun-safe policies.

Last Medical Review: 03/19/2014
Last Revised: 03/19/2014