Skin Cancers: They’re Not All Alike

April 2017

Skin cancers are named for the type of cells that become malignant (cancer). The three most common types are:

  • Melanoma: Melanoma begins in melanocytes (pigment cells). Most melanocytes are in the skin. Melanoma can occur on any skin surface. In men, it’s often found on the skin on the head, on the neck, or between the shoulders and the hips. In women, it’s often found on the skin on the lower legs or between the shoulders and the hips. Melanoma is rare in people with dark skin. When it does develop in people with dark skin, it’s usually found under the fingernails, under the toenails, on the palms of the hands or on the soles of the feet.
  • Basal-cell skin cancer: Basal-cell skin cancer begins in the basal-cell layer of the skin. It usually occurs in places that have been exposed to the sun. For example, the face is the most common place to find basal-cell skin cancer. In people with fair skin, this skin cancer is the most common type.
  • Squamous-cell skin cancer: Squamous-cell skin cancer begins in squamous cells – flat cells that look like fish scales. We each have many squamous cells. They make up most of the cells in the outer layer of the skin, the passages of the respiratory and digestive tracts and the linings of the hollow organs of the body. In people with dark skin, squamous-cell skin cancer is the most common type of skin cancer, and it’s usually found in places that are not exposed to sun, such as the legs or feet. However, in people with fair skin, squamous-cell skin cancer usually occurs on parts of the skin that have been in the sun, such as the head, face, ears and neck.

Skin cancer can invade the normal tissue nearby. Also, it can spread throughout the body. Melanoma is more likely than other skin cancers to spread to other parts of the body. Squamous-cell skin cancer sometimes spreads to other parts of the body, but basal-cell skin cancer rarely does. When skin cancer cells do spread, they break away from the original growth and enter blood vessels or lymph vessels. The cancer cells may be found in nearby lymph nodes. The cancer cells can also spread to other tissues and attach there to form new tumors that may damage those tissues.

Source: National Cancer Institute

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