Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the world, and its incidence is continuing to rise. Approximately two million cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed this year alone in the United States. Even though skin cancer has a low mortality rate, certain forms are aggressive and can be life-threatening, so each and every case should be treated promptly and seriously.
Symptoms of Skin Cancer
Skin cancers tend to develop on sun-exposed areas of the skin, including the face, ears, neck, and lips. The symptoms of skin cancer can vary from person to person and with the particular type of cancer. The most common warning signs of skin cancer include:
- Moles, growths, or other pigmented spots on the skin that change in size or shape
- Persistent lumps or scabs on the skin that itch, bleed, or otherwise become symptomatic
- Flat, scaly or crusted areas of the skin
Types of Skin Cancer
There are three primary types of skin cancer:
- Basal cell carcinoma is most often seen on areas of the body exposed to direct sunlight and is the most common form of skin cancer. A basal cell carcinoma typically appears as a small, raised, flesh-colored bump that is similar to a pimple that persists. The area may have a pearly appearance and may scale or bleed. While this type of skin cancer may spread to the surrounding skin, it rarely metastasizes to other locations in the body.
- Squamous cell carcinomas are most often seen on the hands, forehead, nose, and lower lip, but they can also develop in the mouth or on the genitals. The affected area typically looks like an ulcer or red bump that does not heal. Repeated chemical exposure, radiation exposure, and burns can increase your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma. This form of cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and can be deadly if not treated early.
- Malignant melanoma develops in the skin cells known as melanocytes. The affected area may be anywhere on the body, including areas not exposed to the sun. The lesion may look like a dark mole or pigmented lesion with an irregular shape, border, or color. This form of cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and other areas of the body. As with any other form of cancer, early diagnosis and treatment provide a more favorable long-term prognosis.
The Role of Otolaryngology in Treating Skin Cancer
Otolaryngology is a wide ranging specialty that is focused on treating various conditions involving the ear, nose and throat. The field also includes head and neck specialists and surgeons with expertise in treating various forms of head and neck cancer, including skin cancer. Because many skin cancers tend to occur on sun-exposed areas such as the face and scalp, otolaryngologists are often involved in the surgical treatment of these.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If your head and neck specialist suspects skin cancer based on your history, symptoms, and physical exam, he or she will likely perform a simple biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. This involves taking a small sample of skin from the affected area for closer examination. If the area is malignant, a treatment plan will be developed based on the type and severity of the cancer, as well as your overall health. If the cancer has not spread, the likely treatment is surgical excision to remove the entire cancerous area. Non-surgical treatment options may be used if you are unable to undergo surgery, if the area cannot be completely excised, or if the cancer was caught early. Non-surgical treatments include:
- Immunotherapy or chemotherapy using topical creams applied to the affected area
- Cryosurgery to freeze off the cancerous skin cells
- Radiation therapy may be used if the area is large and unable to be removed surgically