Skin cancers (skin neoplasms) are named after the type of skin cell from which they arise. Basal cell cancer originates from the lowest layer of the epidermis, and is the most common but least dangerous skin cancer. Squamous cell cancer originates from the middle layer, and is less common but more likely to spread, and if left untreated, becomes fatal. Melanoma, which originates in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes), is the least common but most aggressive, most likely to spread, and if untreated, becomes fatal.
While most cases are caused by over-exposure to UV rays from the sun or sunbeds, treatment is generally via surgical removal.
Treatment is dependent on type of cancer, location of the cancer, age of the patient, and whether the cancer is primary or a recurrence. Treatment is also determined by the specific type of cancer. For a small basal cell cancer in a young person, the treatment with the best cure rate (Mohs surgery or CCPDMA) might be indicated. In case of an elderly frail man with multiple complicating medical problems, a difficult to excise basal cell cancer of the nose might warrant radiation therapy (slightly lower cure rate) or no treatment at all. Topical chemotherapy might be indicated for large superficial basal cell carcinoma for good cosmetic outcome, whereas it might be inadequate for invasive nodular basal cell carcinoma or invasive squamous cell carcinoma. In general, melanoma is poorly responsive to radiation or chemotherapy.
For low-risk disease, radiation therapy (external beam radiotherapy), topical chemotherapy (imiquimod or 5-fluorouracil) and cryotherapy (freezing the cancer off) can provide adequate control of the disease; both, however, may have lower overall cure rates than certain type of surgery. Other modalities of treatment such as photodynamic therapy, topical chemotherapy, electrodesiccation and curettage can be found in the discussions of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
In the case of disease that has spread (metastasized), further surgical procedures or chemotherapy may be required.
Currently, surgical excision is the most common form of treatment for skin cancers. The goal of reconstructive surgery is restoration of normal appearance and function. The choice of technique in reconstruction is dictated by the size and location of the defect. Excision and reconstruction of facial skin cancers is generally more challenging due to the presence of highly visible and functional anatomical structures in the face.
When skin defects are small in size, most can be corrected with simple repair, where skin edges are approximated and closed with sutures. This will result in a linear scar. If the repair is made along a natural skin fold or wrinkle line, the scar will be hardly visible. Larger defects may require repair with a skin graft, local skin flap, pedicled skin flap, or a microvascular free flap. Skin grafts and local skin flaps are, by far, more common than the other listed choices.
Skin grafting is patching of a defect with skin that is removed from another site in the body. The skin graft is sutured to the edges of the defect, and a bolster dressing is placed atop the graft for seven to ten days, to immobilise the graft as it heals in place. There are two forms of skin grafting: split thickness and full thickness. In a split thickness skin graft, a shaver is used to shave a layer of skin from the abdomen or thigh. The donor site, regenerates skin and heals over a period of two weeks. In a full thickness skin graft, a segment of skin is totally removed and the donor site needs to be sutured closed.
Split thickness grafts can be used to repair larger defects, but the grafts are inferior in their cosmetic appearance. Full thickness skin grafts are more acceptable, cosmetically. However, full thickness grafts can only be used for small or moderate sized defects.
Local skin flaps are a method of closing defects with tissue that closely matches the defect in colour and quality. Skin from the periphery of the defect site is mobilised and repositioned to fill the deficit. Various forms of local flaps can be designed to minimise disruption to surrounding tissues and maximise cosmetic outcome of the reconstruction. Pedicled skin flaps are a method of transferring skin with an intact blood supply from a nearby region of the body. An example of such reconstruction is a pedicled forehead flap for repair of a large nasal skin defect. Once the flap develops a source of blood supply form its new bed, the vascular pedicle can be detached.