Skin cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the cells of the skin. It can spread to and damage nearby tissue. Over time, it can spread to other parts of the body. Skin cancer is very rare in children.
Exposure to sunlight is a major risk factor for skin cancer. Skin cancer is more common in people with light skin, light-colored eyes, and blond or red hair. Other risk factors include:
Family history of skin cancer
Time spent in the sun
Exposure to tanning beds or lamps
History of sunburns
Having many freckles
Having many moles
Having atypical moles (dysplastic nevi). These large, oddly shaped moles run in families.
Radiation therapy to treat cancer in the past
Taking a medicine that suppresses the immune system
Having moles present at birth (congenital melanocytic nevi)
Certain rare, inherited conditions such as basal cell nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome) or xeroderma pigmentosum (XP)
Actinic keratoses or Bowen disease. These are rough or scaly red or brown patches on the skin.
There are 3 main types of skin cancer:
Basal cell carcinoma. This is a very treatable cancer. It starts in the basal cell layer of the skin (epidermis) and grows very slowly. The cancer often appears as a small, shiny bump or nodule on the skin. It occurs mainly on areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, arms, hands, and face.
Squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer is less common and occurs mostly in adults. It grows faster than basal cell carcinoma, but is also very treatable. Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as nodules or red, scaly patches of skin, and may be found on the face, ears, lips, and mouth. In rare cases, it can spread to other parts of the body.
Melanoma. Skin cancer in children is almost always this type. It's the most dangerous kind of skin cancer. It starts in the melanocyte cells that make pigment (color) in the skin. It may start as a mole that turns into cancer. Melanoma may spread quickly.
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinomas most often start in skin that's exposed to the sun, such as the head, face, neck, arms, and hands. Symptoms can include:
A small, raised bump that is shiny or pearly, and may have small blood vessels or brown, blue, or black areas
Firm, flat yellow or pale areas that look a lot like a scar
A small, flat spot that is scaly, irregularly shaped, and pale, pink, or red
A spot that bleeds easily, then heals and appears to go away, then bleeds again in a few weeks
Patches of raised, red skin that might itch
A pink growth with raised edges, a lower area in the center, and blood vessels spreading out from it
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma tends to start in skin exposed to the sun, such as the head, face, neck, ears, lips, and hands. They can also appear on other parts of the body, like skin in the genital area. Symptoms can include:
A rough or scaly bump that may bleed or crust over
A raised growth that's lower in the center
Open sores that don't heal or heal and then come back
Sometimes moles are present at birth. But most appear during childhood or in young adults. Symptoms of melanoma include a change in a mole, or a new mole that has ABCDE traits such as:
Asymmetry. One half of the mole does not match the other half.
Border. The edges of the mole are ragged, notched, or blurred.
Color. The mole has different colors in it. It may be tan, brown, black, red, or other colors. Or it may have areas that appear to have lost color.
Diameter. The mole is bigger than 6 millimeters across, about the size of a pencil eraser. But some melanomas can be smaller.
Evolving. A mole changes in size, shape, or color.
Other symptoms of melanoma can include a mole that:
Itches or hurts
Oozes, bleeds, or becomes crusty
Turns red or swells
Looks different from your child's other moles
The healthcare provider will examine your child's skin. Tell the healthcare provider:
When you first noticed the skin problem
If it oozes fluid or bleeds, or gets crusty
If it’s changed in size, color, or shape
If your child has pain or itching
Tell the healthcare provider if your child has had skin cancer in the past, and if other family members have had skin cancer.
Your child's healthcare provider will likely take a small piece of tissue (biopsy) from a mole or other skin mark that may look like cancer. The tissue is sent to a lab. A doctor called a pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope. They may do other tests to see if cancer cells are in the sample. The biopsy results will likely be ready in a few days or a week. Your child's healthcare provider will tell you the results. They will talk with you about other tests that may be needed if cancer is found.
Types of treatment for basal cell and squamous cell cancers include the below.
This procedure removes tissue and burns (cauterizes) the area. Your child is given a local anesthetic to numb the area. The doctor then uses a sharp spoon-shaped tool called a curette to remove the cancer. This is called curettage. After curettage, the doctor passes an electric needle over the surface of the scraped area to stop bleeding, and destroy any other cancer cells. After it heals, a flat white scar may remain.
This is done to cut the cancer from the skin, along with some of the healthy tissue around it. Your child is given a local anesthetic. Then, the doctor uses a scalpel to remove the tumor from the skin. The doctor may also remove some of the normal skin around the tumor. This is called a margin. Stitches or a bandage strip may be used to close the wound. The tissue that was removed is sent to a lab for testing. If the report shows that not all the cancer was removed, your child will likely need another procedure to remove the rest of the cancer.
This method is used for cancer that is only in the top layers of the skin. Your child is given a local anesthetic. Then, the doctor uses a small blade to shave off the tumor. The goal is to remove the tumor at its base.
This method uses cold to destroy the cancer cells. This method is best for very small cancers near the skin’s surface. The doctor uses a device that sprays liquid nitrogen onto the tumor. This freezes the cells and destroys them. The dead skin then falls off. Your child may have some swelling and blistering in the area after treatment. A white scar is usually left behind. The procedure may need to be repeated.
This is medicine applied as a cream or ointment onto the skin. It’s also called topical chemotherapy. This kind of medicine is only used if the cancer is just in the top layers of the skin. The medicine is applied several times a week for a few weeks.
This is treatment with high-energy X-rays. Electron beam radiation is often used for skin cancer. This type of radiation doesn’t go deeper than the skin. This helps limit side effects. The radiation damages the cancer cells and stops them from growing. Radiation therapy is a local therapy. This means that it affects the cancer cells only in the treated area.
This procedure removes the cancer and a small amount of normal tissue. It’s done on sensitive areas, such as the face. During Mohs surgery, your child is given a local anesthetic to numb the area being treated. The cancer is removed from the skin one layer at a time. Each layer is checked under a microscope for cancer. If cancer cells are seen, another layer of skin is removed. Layers are removed until the doctor doesn’t see any more cancer. The procedure may take several hours, depending on how many layers need to be removed. After this surgery, the cancer is fully removed and the wound can be repaired.
The goal of surgery is to remove the melanoma, while leaving as much of the nearby skin as intact as possible.
The goal of chemotherapy is to destroy cancer cells directly to shrink tumors that can’t be removed by surgery. Or it may be used to kill cells that have spread to other areas of the body (metastatic melanoma).
The goal of biological therapy is to shrink advanced melanoma tumors. This type of therapy is done with medicines that affect the immune system. It is also called immunotherapy, antibody therapy, or vaccine therapy. The medicine uses the body’s immune defense to attack the cancer cells. These may also be given along with chemotherapy.
The goal of targeted therapy is to shrink advanced melanoma tumors. This type of therapy is done with medicines that target specific parts of melanoma cells. For example, medicines called BRAF inhibitors target cells with a change in the BRAF gene. This gene is found in about half of all melanomas.
Possible complications depend on the type and stage of skin cancer. Melanoma is more likely to cause complications. And the more advanced the cancer, the more likely there will be complications.
Complications may result from treatment, such as:
Loss of large areas of skin and underlying tissue
Problems with the area healing
Infection in the area
Damage to nerves
Return of the skin cancer after treatment
Melanoma may spread to organs throughout the body and cause death.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the Skin Cancer Foundation advise you to:
Limit how much direct sun your child gets between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Use broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Put it on the skin of children older than 6 months of age who are exposed to the sun.
Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, even on cloudy days. Reapply every hour after swimming or sweating.
Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand. They reflect the damaging rays of the sun. This can increase the chance of sunburn.
Make sure your child wears clothing that covers the body and shades the face. Hats should provide shade for both the face, ears, and back of the neck. Wearing sunglasses will reduce the amount of rays reaching the eye and protect the lids of the eyes, as well as the lens. Clothing with UV protection factor (UPF) gives additional protection.
Don’t let your child use or be around sunlamps or tanning beds.
The American Academy of Pediatrics approves of the use of sunscreen on babies younger than 6 months old if adequate clothing and shade are not available. You should still try to keep your baby out of the sun. Dress the baby in lightweight clothing that covers most surface areas of skin. But you also may use a small amount of sunscreen on the baby’s face and back of the hands.
If your child has skin cancer, you can help them during treatment in these ways:
Your child may have trouble eating. A dietitian or nutritionist may be able to help.
Your child may be very tired. They'll need to learn to balance rest and activity.
Get emotional support for your child. Counselors and support groups can help.
Keep all follow-up appointments.
Keep your child out of the sun.
After treatment, check your child's skin every month or as often as advised.
Call your child's healthcare provider if you see any unusual changes in your child's skin.
Skin cancer is rare in children.
Skin cancer is more common in people with light skin, light-colored eyes, and blond or red hair.
Follow the ABCDE rule to tell the difference between a normal mole and melanoma.
Biopsy is used to diagnose skin cancer.
Skin cancer can be treated with surgery, medicine, and radiation.
Staying out of the sun is the best way to prevent skin cancer.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, how your child should take the medicine, and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is advised and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know what symptoms to report to your child's healthcare provider.
Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.