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  • A Guide to Skin Cancers and Precancers
  • Table of Contents and Introduction
  • What Is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal skin cells, leading to malignant tumors. The good news is that if it is caught early, your doctor can treat it with little or no scarring and high odds of eliminating it entirely. Often, the doctor may even detect the growth at a precancerous stage, before it has become a full-blown skin cancer or penetrated below the surface of the skin.
  • Actinic Keratoses

An actinic keratosis (AK), also known as solar keratosis, is a crusty, scaly growth caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The most common type of precancerous skin lesion, AKs appear on skin that has been frequently exposed to the sun or to artificial sources of UV light, such as tanning machines. In rare instances, extensive exposure to X-rays can cause them.
  • Actinic Keratoses photos
  • Treatments for Actinic Keratoses

Early treatment can eliminate almost all actinic keratoses before they become skin cancers. Depending on the nature of the growth and the patient’s age and health, various treatment options are available, including the following: [For more details on these treatments, see our Treatment Glossary at SkinCancer.org/treatments.
  • Atypical Moles

These are unusual-looking benign, or noncancerous, moles, also known as dysplastic nevi (the plural of “nevus,” or mole). They tend to run in families, especially in Caucasians; about 2 to 8 percent of Caucasians have these moles.
  • Atypical Moles photos
  • Atypical Moles photos
  • Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) are abnormal, uncontrolled growths (malignant tumors) arising from the skin’s basal cells, which line the deepest layer of the epidermis—the outermost layer of your skin. Both cumulative ultraviolet (UV) exposure and the kind of intense intermittent UV exposure that leads to sunburn may cause BCCs. These cancers most often occur in skin areas typically exposed to the sun, especially the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders and back.
  • Basal Cell Carcinoma
  • Treatments for Basal Cell Carcinoma

A doctor who suspects that a lesion is a basal cell carcinoma will typically do a biopsy (removing a sample of the tissue and sending it to a lab for analysis). If the biopsy is positive for BCC, the physician will use the results and other factors to determine which treatment is right for you. 

Most BCCs can be cured with one of the following treatments. (For further details on these treatments, see our Treatment Glossary at SkinCancer.org/treatments.)
Two medications have been approved for the very rare cases of advanced BCC. They are used when other treatments such as surgery or radiation are not options. Both are taken by mouth and work by blocking signals that promote cancerous growth.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells arising from the squamous cells, which compose most of the skin’s outermost layer, the epidermis. SCC is the second most common form of skin cancer. An estimated 700,000 cases of SCC are diagnosed each year in the US. The incidence of squamous cell carcinoma in the U.S. has been rising, with increases up to 200 percent over the past three decades.
  • How to Spot a Squamous Cell Carcinoma

These photos show examples of squamous cell carcinomas. They usually appear as thick, rough, scaly patches that may bleed. They often look like warts and sometimes have open sores with a raised border and crusted surface over an elevated pebbly base. The skin around them typically shows signs of sun damage such as wrinkling, pigment changes and loss of elasticity.
  • Treatments for Squamous Cell Carcinoma

If caught early, most squamous cell carcinomas can be cured with one of the following treatments. The doctor will use your biopsy results and other factors to determine which treatment is right for you. [For further details on these treatments, see our Treatment Glossary at SkinCancer.org/treatments.
  • Melanoma

Melanoma is a cancer that arises from the skin cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. Potentially the most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma is often triggered by the kind of intense, intermittent sun exposure that leads to sunburn. That’s why fair-skinned people with light hair and eye color who tend to burn easily are at increased risk. More than 76,000 new cases of melanoma occur each year in the U.S., and about 86 percent of them can be attributed to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Over the past two decades, as outdoor recreational activities have increased and fashions have left more skin exposed, melanoma incidence rates have more than tripled.
  • The ABCDEs of Melanoma
  • Treatments for Early Melanoma

Melanomas that have not penetrated below the skin surface, generally called noninvasive or “in situ” melanomas, are considered stage 0; they are at very little risk of spreading elsewhere in the body. Small, invasive, but still early melanomas not considered at high risk of spreading beyond the initial tumor are considered stage I. The usual treatment for melanoma in these early stages is surgery, followed by frequent, regular monitoring and skin checks with your doctor. For more information on treatments, see our Treatment Glossary at SkinCancer.org/treatments.
  • The ABCDEs of Melanoma
  • Treatments for Advanced Melanoma

When melanoma cells spread to the lymph nodes (stage III) or more distant parts of the body (stage IV), the melanoma is considered advanced, and a variety of additional treatments can come into play. The FDA has approved a number of new medications in recent years that can significantly delay the cancer’s advance for months or even years, and offer tremendous hope for patients who previously had little. These include the following. For more information on these treatment options, see the “Medications” section of our Treatment Glossary at SkinCancer.org/treatments.
  • ORAL MEDICATION, Targeted Therapies
While the new immunotherapies for advanced melanoma have been making giant strides, so have a class of treatments called targeted therapies. These therapies, all taken by mouth, are targeted to those who have a defective, cancer-producing version of a gene called BRAF.
  • The Importance of Follow-up

If you’ve been diagnosed with a precancer or skin cancer, you’re at increased risk of developing others in the future. After treatment, it’s crucial for you to schedule regular follow-ups and skin checks with your physician at appropriate intervals. Work with your doctor to set up a timetable.
Leonard H. Goldberg, MD
Mark Lebwohl, MD
Deborah Sarnoff, MD

For more information or additional brochures, contact: 
The Skin Cancer Foundation
149 Madison Ave., Suite 901, New York, NY 10016

A Guide to Skin Cancers and Precancers

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Sold in packages of 50 brochures




  • Updated patient-friendly text
  • Companion online treatment glossary (skincancer.org/treatments)
  • Personalization space on back cover (perfect for practice contact information)


At The Skin Cancer Foundation, we see our most crucial roles as helping you understand the risks of skin cancer, letting you know everything you can do to avoid the disease and showing you how to spot potential skin cancers at an early stage, when they are almost always curable. That’s why we created this comprehensive guide for you.

Did you know that exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays causes more than 90 percent of all skin cancers? All that sun damage adds up throughout your life. For that reason, everyone, no matter their age, sex, race or skin color, is at risk of developing the disease. Tanning beds multiply this risk. And if skin cancer isn’t diagnosed early, it can be serious, disfiguring, even life-threatening.

This brochure has vital information for you on the three most common forms of skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma), including what they look like, what their dangers are and the many ways to treat them. We also introduce you to two types of precancers (actinic keratoses and atypical moles) that can turn into skin cancers or increase your risk of developing skin cancers.

Be sure to review our sun safety advice on last page, too, because preventing skin cancer is the best strategy of all.




  • Introduction
  • Precancers
  • Actinic Keratoses
  • Atypical Moles
  • Skin Cancers
  • Basal Cell Carcinoma
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma
  • Melanoma
  • The Importance of Follow-Up
  • Preventing Skin Cancer




Leonard H. Goldberg, MD
Mark Lebwohl, MD
Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD

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