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Skin Cancer FAQ

If you are interested in Mohs surgery, it's likely you also want to know more about skin cancer. We have provided answers to several common questions about how to spot and prevent skin cancer below. To learn more, find a fellowship trained Mohs surgeon in your area.

What is basal cell cancer and what does it look like?

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It usually appears on sun-exposed areas as a blemish that won't heal or a persistent, pearly, shiny bump. The area may bleed with minor trauma. There are several other presentations including one that appears like a red, rough patch. Sometimes, they are mistaken for pimples, cysts, or rashes. See skin cancer photos.

Basal cell carcinoma almost never spreads to the lymph nodes or internal organs, except under rare circumstances. However, it can invade and destroy the immediately surrounding tissue and cause deformity if left unchecked.

What is squamous cell cancer and what does it look like?

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common type of skin cancer. It also commonly arises on areas that are chronically exposed to the sun, such as the face, scalp, neck, upper back, and arms. It often appears as a hard, scaly bump or scaling patch and may be mistaken for a wart or patch of dry skin. See skin cancer photos.

Squamous cell carcinoma can occasionally spread into the lymph nodes and internal organs. This occurs more often with large, aggressive squamous cell carcinomas or rapidly-growing tumors on the ears, scalp, lips or genitalia. An increased risk of spread is also seen in patients that are immunosuppressed, such as organ transplant patients, or those with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), or in tumors that have recurred after previous treatment.

What is melanoma and what does it look like?

Melanoma is the most deadly of the common forms of skin cancer but has an excellent prognosis if it is caught early. If caught in its earliest stages, it can be effectively treated with Mohs micrographic surgery.

Though melanoma may occur anywhere on your skin, it is found most often on the legs of women or the backs of men. This type of skin cancer often occurs in moles. It is usually a brown to black lesion which is not uniform in border, color or surface. Melanomas on chronically sun-damaged skin like the face may appear like a brown patch or freckle with irregular color.

What is actinic keratosis and what does it look like?

Actinic (solar) keratosis is the most common type of pre-cancer and results from chronic, cumulative sun exposure. Actinic keratosis looks like a scaly patch of dry skin, either flesh-colored or pink, which occurs on sun-exposed areas such as the head and neck, arms, chest and legs. Actinic keratoses should be treated early, as they can lead to squamous cell carcinoma.

Can I get skin cancer anywhere on my body?

While skin cancers usually appear on skin that has been chronically exposed to the sun (like the head, neck, arms, and chest), you can get skin cancer anywhere – even on skin that has rarely or "never" been exposed to the sun (for example, the genitals).

What can I do to protect myself from skin cancer?

The damage that your skin has already received from the sun cannot be completely reversed. However, several precautions can be taken to reduce your risk of developing further skin cancers:

  • Minimize sun exposure from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM when the sun's rays are the strongest. If you enjoy outdoor activities such as golfing, gardening, running, walking, or boating, try to schedule them outside of these "peak sun hours."
  • Apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater at least one-half hour before going outdoors and reapply as directed on the product label. Look for products containing avobenzone, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide. These products have the highest chance of providing broad-spectrum protection, blocking UVA and UVB rays. Choose a cream-based sunscreen if you have dry skin, and a gel-based, or non-comedogenic formula if you have oily or acne-prone skin. Choose a "very water-resistant" formula if you will be sweating or in water; however, remember that even these must be reapplied every 80 minutes. If the ears or portions of the scalp are exposed due to short or thinning hair, remember to apply sunscreen to these areas as well.
  • Protect your lips with lipstick or a lip balm containing sunscreen.
  • Wear protective clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
  • Avoid use of the UV beds at tanning salons.
  • Make sure to use sunscreen on overcast days. The ultraviolet rays can be as damaging to your skin on cloudy, hazy days as they are on sunny days.
  • Use sunscreen while at lower latitudes or high altitudes. The sun is stronger near the equator and at high elevations, where the sun's rays strike the earth most directly.
  • If you need a little "color," use a sunless tanning lotion or get a spray tan.

Will my cancer come back (recur)?

The goal of Mohs surgery is to remove your skin cancer while preserving your normal healthy surrounding skin. The cure rate for Mohs skin cancer surgery is very high, even for the most difficult tumors. The cure rate is up to 99% for new skin cancers and 95% for recurrent skin cancers (those which have been treated in the past and have come back.) While no method can guarantee a cure 100% of the time, appropriately and correctly performed Mohs surgery provides the highest possible cure rate for most tumors.

Will I develop more skin cancers?

Studies have shown that once you develop a skin cancer, there is an increased risk of developing others in the years ahead. For this reason, it is important for you to continue seeing your primary dermatologist at regularly scheduled intervals, and to schedule an appointment if you are concerned about new or changing growths on your skin.

You can reduce your risk of developing more skin cancers by protecting your skin from further sun damage, but continued vigilance on your part is required (along with scheduled visits to your dermatologist) to help detect further skin cancers at an early stage.