Skin Cancer

 More than 1 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer every year in the United States – and many of these cases could have been prevented. Most damage that leads to skin cancer is caused by over-exposure to Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or from tanning beds. This is damage that is easily preventable.

Limiting sun exposure, using sunscreen and avoiding tanning beds are all highly recommended actions that can lower the risk of skin cancer. Yet, despite efforts to inform the public of these preventative measures, the number of new skin cancer cases has been increasing over the past few decades – a strong indication that our current efforts are far from sufficient.

In addition to more public education about recommended risk-lowering actions, much more research is needed to find new ways to protect our skin.

Although most skin cancers are curable, a serious type known as melanoma was estimated to claim 8,420 American people’s lives last year alone, accounting for more than 70% of all skin cancer deaths. Melanoma is more difficult to prevent because, unlike in other types of skin cancer, heredity plays a major role in melanoma development. It is also more aggressive in spreading (metastasizing) to distant body parts, and treatment is often ineffective once metastasis occurs. Studies show that only 15% of patients with metastatic melanoma could survive for 5 years or longer. Better treatment strategies are in high demand for this lethal skin cancer.


NFCR funds leading cancer researchers who are dedicated to finding new and better strategies for skin cancer prevention and treatment. Below are two examples of outstanding NFCR research programs, each holding great promise in the effort to fight skin cancer and save more lives:

Searching for “A Second Layer of Sunscreen”
NFCR Fellow Helmut Sies, M.D., from Heinrich Heine Universitat, Germany

Back in the 1980s, Dr. Helmut Sies discovered the powerful anti-oxidation activity of lycopene, the famous red pigment in tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. His recent research with volunteers showed that lycopene and other carotenoids (natural pigments) effectively ameliorated UV-induced skin damage (erythma) in humans, which consequently helped reduce the risk of skin cancer. Dr. Sies’ discovery increases the possibilities of using dietary intervention for skin cancer protection, and helps the development of functional foods that may enable humans to create a second layer of powerful sunscreen from inside out.

Stopping the Lethal Spread of Melanoma
NFCR Center of Metastasis Research, University of Alabama (Birmingham) directed by Danny Welch, Ph.D

Melanoma can take a patient’s life within 4-6 months once it has spread. Very little is known how cancer cells spread to distant sites in the body and many researchers have shied away from the complex biology of metastatic cancer.

Dr. Welch and his collaborators are opening the research doors toward an understanding of the metastatic process and finding ways to stop its killing. They have discovered six “metastasis suppressor genes” including BRMS1 and KISS1 genes that stop the spread of melanoma. The impact of this research is enormously significant, as it could lead to novel anti-cancer therapies that prevent metastasis from happening or keep it dormant, putting the cancer under control and giving patients new hope for a cure and extended life.

More than one million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States, making it the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer.[1]

Overview of the Skin
The skin is the largest organ in the body. It protects against germs, covers internal organs, and helps regulate the body’s temperature. The two main layers of the skin are the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis forms the top, outer layer of the skin. The dermis is a thicker layer beneath the epidermis.

Skin cancer generally develops in the epidermis. The three main types of cells in the epidermis are squamous cells, basal cells, and melanocytes. Squamous cells form a flat layer of cells at the top of the epidermis. Basal cells are round cells found beneath the squamous cells. Melanocytes are pigment-producing cells that are generally found in the lower part of the epidermis.

Types of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is often categorized as melanoma or non-melanoma. Melanoma is a cancer that begins in melanocytes. It is less common than non-melanoma skin cancer, but tends to be more aggressive. In 2006 an estimated 62,000 individuals in the U.S. will be diagnosed with melanoma, and close to 8,000 will die of the disease.[1]

The most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. This type of cancer rarely spreads to distant sites in the body, but it can be disfiguring and may invade nearby tissues.

The second most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. Although this type of cancer is more likely to metastasize (spread to lymph nodes or other sites in the body) than basal cell carcinoma, metastasis is still rare. Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma most commonly develop on sun-exposed parts of the skin, but can develop on other parts of the skin as well.

An alarming trend in both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers is that the frequency of these cancers in children and young adults appears to be increasing.[2] This highlights the importance of prevention at all ages.

Because of their very different characteristics and treatment, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer are discussed further in separate sections.

Go to the Melanoma Information Center

Go to the Non-Melanoma Information Center

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