Most Skin Cancers Are Treatable If Diagnosed Early

Author: John Ortega

"Especially when they are on the head or neck, we want to treat squamous cell carcinoma in its early stages."

With May being National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, now is a good time to learn about basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Neither of them strike the same level of fear in people as melanoma, but they are diagnosed far more frequently.

Melanoma is often referred to as the most serious type of skin cancer because it can spread from the outer layer of skin to other organs in the body. It is expected to kill nearly 7,200 people in the United States this year. However, squamous cell carcinoma is projected to take the lives of more than 15,000 Americans during that time.

“The squamous cell carcinoma of the skin is generally not deadly unless it has spread to other areas,” said Robyn Messing, DO , a board certified physician that specializes in skin care, skin diseases, and skin cancer and is affiliated with McLaren Greater Lansing and employed by Family Medicine of Michigan.

“When it comes down to squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, they have a very similar prognosis which is generally pretty good. If caught early, a localized removal will usually take care of the problem.”

There are expected to be roughly 1.8 million diagnoses of SCC in the U.S. this year, about nine times more than melanoma. But the cure rate for SCC is about 99 percent for those being treated for the disease for the first time. The most serious health issues arise when a squamous cell carcinoma spreads to a nearby lymph node because it was not treated early. When this happens, patients need to undergo surgery to remove the cancer, receive radiation treatments, or in certain advanced cases take an immunotherapy medication.

“Especially when they are on the head or neck, we want to treat squamous cell carcinoma in its early stages,” Dr. Messing said. “If the area is two centimeters or larger in size, and located on the head or neck, there is more of a chance of it spreading to the lymph nodes.”

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, with twice as many diagnoses as SCC. Thankfully, BCC is rarely lethal. It usually develops in fair-skin people who have been exposed to a lot of sun or spent a lot of time at tanning salons. It commonly occurs on the neck, head, and arms, but can also be found on the chest, abdomen, and legs. Because BCC often grows more extensively underneath the skin than on the surface, it is crucial to get it treated early because removing it later can lead to a more extensive procedure.

“There are several different types of BCC and some are more aggressive than others,” Dr. Messing said. “Usually they are just locally aggressive. However, we want to treat any kind of basal cell carcinoma that we see because we don’t want something that is superficial to become more invasive.”
When it comes to lowering the chances of contracting skin cancer, plenty of things can be done.

“Genetics are part of everything we are,” Dr. Messing said. “But protecting yourself with sun block and covering up in the sun and using good sun avoidance behaviors are very important controllable risk factors. Some people object to wearing sunscreen for various reasons, but most people I talk to seem receptive to using hats or wearing SPF clothing.

It is always important to conduct regular visual spot checks of your skin to ensure that if you do develop skin cancer, it is treated early. If you are diagnosed with skin cancer and it requires treatment, you can contact Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Greater Lansing at (517) 913-3890 for more information.