Skin Cancer of the Head and Neck

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States and involves abnormal growths of skin cells that can form anywhere on the body, but most frequently appear in areas that are regularly exposed to the sun such as the skin of the head and neck. There are more than a million new cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year. Although most cases of skin cancer can be successfully treated, it is still important to keep skin safe and healthy and try to prevent this disease.

There are three major types of skin cancer that affect associated layers of the skin. These major types are:

Squamous cell carcinoma affects the squamous cells, which are just below the outer surface of the skin and serve as the inner lining.
Basal cell carcinoma affects the basal cells, which lay under the squamous cells and produce new skin cells.
Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and affects the melanocytes, which produce melanin.

Nonmelanoma skin cancers make up the vast majority of all head and neck cancers. Basal cell carcinoma, the most frequently found type of neck and neck skin cancer, develops over time on areas with a lot of sun exposure. While these lesions can often be removed quickly with a minimally invasive procedure when caught early, all forms of cancer carry a risk for metastasis, or spreading to other sites. Therefore, skin exams should always include a thorough check of the entire head and neck to ensure that any abnormal changes are discovered quickly.

Causes

Every day, skin cells die and new ones form to replace them in a process controlled by DNA. Skin cancer can form when this process does not work properly because of damage to DNA. New cells may form when they are not needed or older cells may not die. This can cause a growth of tissue known as a tumor. DNA damage is often a result of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps. Since skin cancer can sometimes affect areas not exposed to the sun, heredity may also be a factor.

Certain factors, such as fair skin, moles, a weakened immune system and age, can also increase the risk of skin cancer.

Signs and Symptoms

Skin cancer can often be identified as a new or changed growth on the skin that may often occur on the scalp, face, lips, ears and neck. Basal cell carcinoma most commonly develops on the ears or the face, especially the forehead. It often progresses from a small, light-colored spot to increase in size and take on the appearance of a sore. The lesion may or may not change in color. Squamous cell carcinoma tends to develop on the lower lip or ears most frequently. Its appearance is usually similar to that of a basal cell carcinoma. Melanoma will often present with a black or dark blue spot on the skin.

Diagnosis

It is important to see your doctor if you notice any skin changes. Early detection is valuable in successfully treating skin cancer. Regular full body screening is recommended as well. A biopsy is performed to properly diagnose suspected cancerous growths.

Treatment

Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type, size and location of the tumor. Most options remove the entire growth and are usually effective. Removal procedures are usually simple and require only a local anesthetic in an outpatient setting. Some of the treatment options for skin cancer include:

Freezing – also known as cryosurgery, kills tissue by freezing them with liquid nitrogen
Excision – the abnormal tissue, as well as some surrounding healthy tissue, is cut out of the skin
Laser therapy – destroys cancerous growths with little damage to surrounding tissue and few side effects
Mohs surgery – removes larger skin growths layer by layer until no abnormal cells remain to prevent damage to healthy skin
Chemotherapy – uses drugs to kill cancer, may be applied through creams or lotions for top layer tumors

Although most treatment for skin cancer of the head and neck is successful, new tumors can still form. It is important to practice preventive measures and see your doctor on a regular basis. You can also perform self skin checks on all visible areas to spot any changes as soon as possible.

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