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Skin Cancer: Causes, Types, Diagnosis & Treatment

Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells which generally develop in the areas that are exposed to the sun. It can also develop in areas of the skin which aren't exposed to the sun. Read this article to find out what are the causes and symptoms of skin cancer and how to diagnose and treat it.

Causes Of Skin Cancer

The skin has three layers which are known as the epidermis (outer layer of the skin providing protection from bacteria, water loss and other harmful substances), dermis (a deep, thick layer beneath the epidermis containing tough connective tissues, sweat glands and hair follicles), and hypodermis (a deeper subcutaneous tissue made of fat and connective tissue).

The epidermis i.e., the outer layer of the skin is always exposed to the environment. The skin cells are shedding daily and new ones are multiplying and forming to replace the dead skin cells. Sometimes, these skin cells can multiply excessively creating a skin tumour that may either be benign or malignant.

Types Of Skin Cancer

1. Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. This type of skin cancer develops in the basal cells located in the epidermis. Basal cell carcinoma mainly appears in the areas of the body which are particularly exposed to the sun such as the ears, neck, face, scalp, back and shoulders [1] , [2] .

2. Squamous cell carcinoma

This type of skin cancer accounts for about 20 per cent of all skin cancer cases. Squamous cell carcinoma affects the squamous cells located at the top part of the epidermis and if left untreated can spread to other parts of the body. It usually appears on sun-exposed areas such as the head, neck, lips, ears and hands and looks like red, scaly rough skin lesions [3] .

3. Actinic keratosis

They appear as dry, scaly patches which are precancerous growth and can progress to squamous cell carcinoma if left untreated. Actinic keratosis is caused due to the UV rays of the sun [4] .

4. Melanoma

It is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It develops from the cells that give your skin its colour, known as melanocytes. Melanoma appears as a mole and can occur anywhere on the body. In men, it appears on the face and in women, it occurs on the lower legs [5] .

Other less common types of skin cancer are Merkel cell carcinoma, Kaposi sarcoma and sebaceous gland carcinoma.

Early Signs & Symptoms Of Skin Cancer

  • A new mole that changes in size, colour and shape.
  • A sore that isn't healing.
  • Scaly, itchy appearing lesions.
  • Abnormal pink or brown spot, patch or mole.
  • Two halves of the mole that aren't identical.
  • Skin lesions that have a border with uneven edges.

Stages Of Skin Cancer

Stages of basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma [6] :

Stage 0 - The abnormal cells have not spread in the epidermis.
Stage 1 - The cancer has spread in the dermis, but it's not larger than 2 cm.
Stage 2 - The mole or skin lesion is larger than 2 cm.
Stage 3 - The cancer has spread to the nearby tissue or bone, larger than 3 cm.
Stage 4 - The cancer is larger than 3 cm.

Stages of melanoma [7] , [8] :

Stage 0 - The cancer hasn't entered the epidermis yet.
Stage 1 - The cancer has spread to the dermis, but it is small in size.
Stage 2 - The cancer increases its size by becoming larger and thicker.
Stage 3 - The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and other nearby skin tissues.
Stage 4 - The advanced stage of melanoma where the cancer starts spreading to the organs and tissues.

Risk Factors Of Skin Cancer

  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A weak immune system
  • Sun exposure
  • Fair skin, light hair and freckles
  • Having more than 50 moles or having atypical moles
  • A personal history of severe skin sunburns
  • Frequent exposure to chemicals like vinyl chloride and tar
  • Exposure to arsenic in drinking water
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to radiation during acne or eczema treatment
  • Skin that doesn't tan easily
  • Having blue or green eyes

Diagnosing Skin Cancer

If you notice sudden moles or skin lesions on the back, legs and other parts of the body, consult a doctor [9] . The doctor will first examine the shape, size, colour and texture of the mole and will ask when it first appeared, how much it has increased over time and whether is it painful or itchy.

Based on the appearance of the mole, the doctor will recommend a biopsy which can be done in many ways:

1. Shave biopsy is done if the basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma is suspected. It involves numbing the skin and shaving a piece of the lesion.

2. Incisional biopsy is done by making an incision in the skin lesion and removing an abnormal part for evaluation.

3. Excisional biopsy is done if melanoma is suspected. The doctor removes the entire abnormal skin part for evaluation.

If the skin cancer is in its advanced stage, the doctor will do a sentinel node biopsy, CT scans, PET scan depending on the location of skin cancer.

Treatment For Skin Cancer

The treatment will depend on the type of cancer, size, location, stage and how much it has spread [10] . Then the doctor will recommend one or more of these treatments which include:

  • Excision surgery, which is done by cutting out the healthy skin surrounding the mole.
  • Cryotherapy, which is done by freezing the growth using liquid nitrogen and the tissue is destroyed as it thaws.
  • Mohs surgery involves removing excess tissues of the abnormal growth situated layer after layer till no abnormal cells are visible.
  • Chemotherapy treatment is done to kill the cancer cells.
  • Curettage and electrodesiccation in which is a long-shaped blade used to scrape away the cancer cells and the remaining cells are burnt with an electric needle.
  • Radiation therapy is an alternative treatment to surgery where surgery is difficult in places like the eyelids, nose or ears.
  • Photodynamic therapy is done to destroy the cancer cells using a laser light.
  • Biological therapy is done to stimulate the immune system to fight skin cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy is another treatment where the cream is applied to the skin to trigger the immune system to kill cancer cells.

Home Remedies To Treat Skin Cancer

1. Frankincense Oil

According to a study published in Biomed Central in 2009 frankincense oil was known to induce apoptosis of tumour cells [11] . The oil has anticarcinogenic activity that aids in treating skin cancer.

  • Take a few drops of frankincense oil on your fingers and apply on the skin lesions.
  • Leave it on and let it dry. Do this 2 to 3 times daily.

2. Myrrh oil

The anticancerous activities of myrrh oil influence apoptosis of cancerous cells according to a study published in the Oncology Letters [12] .

  • Mix 6-7 drops of myrrh oil with 1 teaspoon of a carrier oil like coconut oil.
  • Apply it on the affected skin area and let it dry.
  • Do this twice daily.

3. Coconut oil

The presence of lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid in coconut oil is also beneficial in treating skin cancer by killing the skin cancer cells [13] .

  • Apply a tablespoon of coconut oil to the skin lesions or moles. Do this daily.

4. Eggplant

Solasodine glycoside is a natural compound found in eggplant which has been found effective in treating malignant and benign skin tumours [14] , [15] .

  • Mince half an eggplant into smaller pieces.
  • Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar to it and keep it in the fridge for 3 days.
  • After three days, with the help of a cotton swab take the eggplant mixture and apply it on the skin lesion.
  • Do this thrice daily.

5. Turmeric

Turmeric contains an active compound curcumin which is known for its powerful anticancerous properties. The antiproliferative effects of curcumin are effective in fighting head and neck squamous cell carcinoma [16] .

  • Take 1 tablespoon of turmeric powder and mix with few drops of water to make a thick paste.
  • Apply this paste on the affected skin and leave it for 30 minutes.
  • Do this 3 to 4 times daily.

Note: These home remedies might work when the cancer is in the beginning stage.

Foods To Eat To Prevent Skin Cancer

1. Beta carotene

Beta carotene is an antioxidant which gets converted into vitamin A after consumption. This nutrient is effective in boosting the immune system and helps in fighting skin cancer [17] . Eat foods rich in beta-carotene such as carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes and apricots.

2. Lycopene

Lycopene is a red pigment present in foods like tomatoes, oranges, papaya, guava and watermelon. According to a study conducted at the Ohio State University, daily tomato consumption could cut the risk of skin cancer tumours by half [18] .

3. Omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 fatty acids stop COX-2, a chemical responsible for skin cancer progression. Studies have claimed that consumption of omega 3 could reduce the risk of skin cancer [19] , [20] . Salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, tuna, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are packed full of omega 3 fatty acids.

4. Zinc

Zinc strengthens and helps in proper functioning of the immune system to fight against skin cancer and other diseases. This mineral is known to reduce the risk of squamous cell carcinoma [21] . Zinc is found in foods like chickpeas, lentils, black beans, lamb, shellfish and beef.

5. Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that prevents skin damage from harmful free radicals, acts as a protective shield from the sun and is anti-inflammatory in nature. This vitamin can reduce skin cancer according to a study [22] . Vitamin E is found in foods like nuts and seeds, soybeans, wheat germ, etc.

6. Polyphenols

Polyphenols are micronutrients packed with antioxidants, found in green tea and black tea. These polyphenols contain anti-inflammatory and tumour-inhibiting properties which have been found to repair DNA in UV-exposed skin [23] and also prevents UVB-induced skin cancer [24] .

7. Vitamin C

Vitamin C present in foods like citrus fruits, strawberries, raspberries, broccoli and bell peppers can help in the treatment of basal cell carcinoma [25] .

Additional Tips For Preventing Skin Cancer

  • Avoid direct sun exposure during noon as the sun's rays are the strongest during that time.
  • Apply sunscreen and lip balm when stepping out.
  • Avoid lamps and tanning beds.
  • Wear protective clothing.
  • Wear sunglasses that have UVA and UVB protective clothing.

It is necessary to examine your skin regularly to check if there are any new growths. Detecting skin cancer early will ensure effective treatment.

View Article References
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