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Living Well

Recognizing Skin Cancer

Last updated: Aug 03, 2010

Dermatology FAQ


When you visit your dermatologist, he or she will thoroughly examine your skin and ask about your medical history. If you need laboratory tests, your dermatologist will explain why you need them and approximately how long it usually takes to get results. 

Here are some questions and answers that will help you know when to see your dermatologist
and what you can do to protect your skin and health between your doctor visits:

What conditions can a dermatologist treat?
Dermatologists treat a wide range of conditions that affect the skin, hair, and nails.

How often should I see a dermatologist?
You should visit your dermatologist at least once each year for a thorough skin examination. If you have issues between your yearly visit, including acne, suspicious areas that do not heal, a rash, or an infected nail, you should see your dermatologist immediately. Many skin conditions can be treated easily with a dermatologist's diagnosis and treatment.

What are risk factors for getting skin cancer?
Risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • Fair skin or skin that freckles, easily turns red, or quickly becomes sensitive after sun exposure
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • Exposure to the sun at work or play
  • Sunburns, especially early in life

What should I look for on my skin?
You should see a dermatologist immediately if you have areas on your skin that grow or change shape and color. In addition, you should see your dermatologist immediately if you have areas that ooze fluid or blood, crust or clot over, and then ooze or bleed again as well as any sore that doesn't heal after 2 two weeks.

How can I tell if a skin growth is dangerous?
Only a dermatologist can distinguish a benign skin growth from cancer. If you have a suspicious growth, your dermatologist is likely to remove part or all of it for biopsy. In some cases, he or she will advise additional treatment to ensure that all the cancer cells have been removed.

Can melanoma spread? Is it dangerous?
If it's left untreated, melanoma can spread and be life threatening; however, if it is found and treated in its early stages, melanoma is curable. Other skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma are curable or manageable. To protect your health and find skin cancer early, be sure to see your dermatologist each year or sooner if you have a suspicious spot on your skin. 

How is skin cancer treated?
Skin cancer treatment depends on the type of cancer. If you have a basal cell tumor, the extent of your surgery will depend on your age and health as well as the type, size, location, and depth of your tumor. Melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma are typically removed (or . Mohs micrographic surgery is a precise technique for removing skin cancer that helps preserve healthy tissue. Other techniques for treating skin cancer include curettage and electrosurgery, cryosurgery, radiation, photodynamic therapy, laser surgery, and topical medications.

What is the best way to prevent skin cancer?
The best way to avoid skin cancer is to limit your exposure to the sun. The leading cause of skin cancer is excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun.

Is there a safe way to tan?
There is no safe way to tan. Tanning occurs when ultraviolet rays enter and damage the skin.

What are the cumulative effects of sun exposure?
Excessive exposure to the sun can cause your skin to wrinkle, blotch, roughen, be less flexible, and be prone to bruising and skin cancer.

Are tanning beds safe?
The US Department of Health & Human Services and the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer have confirmed that ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds can cause cancer. Recent research shows a 75% increase in the risk of melanoma in people who have been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning before age 35.

Will sunscreen keep me from getting enough vitamin D?
Although it's important to get some sunshine to help produce vitamin D, most people get enough even when wearing sunscreen. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough vitamin D, ask your doctor what you should do to get more. There are safe ways to get enough vitamin D that do not increase your risk for skin cancer.

Are there any sunscreens designed just for sensitive skin?
People who are sensitive to sunscreens should look for chemical-free sunscreens. These products typically contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that reflect rather than absorb the sun's rays. They are usually much less likely to cause a skin reaction.

Which sunscreen should I use?
The best sunscreen for you depends on your skin type; however, any sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more is a good place to start. Ask your dermatologist if he or she recommends a special sunscreen for your skin type.

When should I use sunscreen?
Because skin cancer results from cumulative exposure to UV rays, you should use sunscreen every day, all year around, and on sunny and cloudy days. You should use sunscreen whether you're planning to be in the sun for very short or extended periods.

 Visit the Summit Medical Group Dermatology landing page
for information about our services, dermatologists, locations, and hours.

Learn more about Mohs micrographic surgery.