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Cancers of the skin are the most common types of cancer worldwide. This is perhaps not surprising when you consider that our skin is being constantly bombarded by everything the environment can throw at it. It is over 200 years since it was first realised that cancer could be caused directly by carcinogens1 in the environment, when Percivall Pott made the connection between skin cancer and exposure to soot in chimney sweeps2 in 1775.
Today, excessive exposure to the sun appears to be one of the most important factors, but chemicals, viruses and radiation can also play a role in the development of skin cancer. There are also certain rare genetic defects that can lead to hereditary skin cancer.
Types of Skin Cancer
The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. The first two are often lumped together as 'non-melanoma skin cancer', as their treatment is very similar. In addition to these three types, there are a number of other skin cancers, most of which are very rare.
Until quite recently, Kaposi's sarcomas were only really seen in parts of Africa, particularly Kenya and Uganda. Today, Kaposi's sarcomas are associated with suppression of the immune system, either medically (such as after an organ transplant) or caused by HIV3. It is thought that Kaposi's sarcomas are caused by a virus related to those that cause herpes.
This name illustrates an annoying habit that dermatologists4 exhibit. Rather than working out what a disease really is, they just describe it in Latin (or Greek, or both). So, a Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans is a 'fibrous fleshy tumour that sticks out of the skin'. Which is true, but not terribly helpful.
Merkel Cell Tumours
Merkel cells are found in the skin near nerve endings. Tumours of these cells are very rare - only about 500 cases have been described.
Another very rare type of cancer. These tumours are formed in the blood vessels of the skin.
Lymphomas of the Skin
Lymphomas usually occur in the lymph nodes5. Rarely, they can occur in other organs, including the skin.