Don’t get lost in the jargon. Here’s a quick breakdown of the most common skin-cancer terms.
Acral lentiginous melanoma: This dangerous subtype of skin cancer isn’t thought to be caused by sun exposure; it’s genetic and forms on the palms, the soles of the feet, or under a nail. It’s the type that led to Bob Marley’s untimely death at age 36, when he reportedly mistook his darkened toenail for a soccer injury.
Actinic keratosis: Often called a precancer, it’s a rough, scaly pink papule on the skin that results from a lot of lifetime sun exposure. If untreated, a small percentage of AKs grow into squamous-cell carcinoma.
Basal-cell carcinoma: Thought to be the most common type of cancer, BCC is slow-growing and tends to form on sun-exposed areas, like the face, neck, or upper chest. BCC does not spread to distant organs, so it’s not life-threatening and is almost always cured with treatment. Between 40 and 50 percent of Americans who reach age 65 will develop basal-cell or squamous-cell carcinoma.
Cryotherapy: No, not the allover body freeze celebrities and athletes are touting now. This treatment is a freezing-cold liquid nitrogen that a dermatologist sprays on precancers (and some early cancers) to help clear them. It takes seconds, stings during the treatment, and turns the skin red for a few days afterward; it could blister and may leave behind a spot.
Brachytherapy: This form of radiation therapy is marketed as a painless, scarless treatment primarily used for nonmelanoma skin cancer, though pigment changes and scarring can develop. Many dermatologists are skeptical because there isn’t enough research to back its effectiveness, and it can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Electrodessication and curettage: This scrape-and-burn procedure is a fast treatment for nonmelanoma skin cancers (it takes about five minutes). It can result in more prominent scars and a lower cure rate compared to surgical removal, so dermatologists tend to use the Mohs technique (see below) on specific areas of the face and for aggressive or large nonmelanoma skin cancers.
Excision: What dermatologists call surgery. It’s the cornerstone of treatment for all types of skin cancer. It can take as little as 30 minutes, is done with local anesthesia, and usually results in a thin, linear scar.
Melanoma: A potentially deadly, aggressive skin cancer that forms in melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells of the skin. Within weeks to months, melanoma has the ability to penetrate through the skin and into the lymph channels or bloodstream, then on to other organs. It is the most common type of cancer for adults age 25 to 29.
Merkel-cell carcinoma: A relatively rare form of skin cancer that’s even more deadly than melanoma. The survival rate is under 30 percent after five years.
Mohs surgery: This specialized technique is reserved for certain skin cancers that form on areas deserving special care, such as the face, ears, lips, hands, or genitals. It removes cancer while sparing healthy tissue to create the smallest possible scar.
Nevus: The medical term for a mole. Nevi are benign, normal, and made up of melanocytes (the cells that make pigment) within the skin.
Photodynamic therapy: A nonsurgical blue-light therapy that can cure some superficial basal-cell carcinomas and actinic keratoses.
Squamous-cell carcinoma: Another slow-growing cancer that rarely spreads beyond the skin, and therefore has a high cure rate. These appear in areas hit hardest by the sun, such as the face, scalp, ears, neck, chest, forearms, or the backs of the hands.
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