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Understanding your risk

The most important risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to harmful Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds.

Like other cancers, your risk depends on many variables, including:

  • A lighter natural skin color
  • Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Certain types of moles
  • Family history of skin cancer
  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • Age

Optum’s oncology team offers comprehensive cancer risk assessments and hereditary cancer genetics evaluation programs to help you identify your risk.

Diagnosing skin cancer

You are the first defense against skin cancer. By being aware of changes in your skin, and bringing them to the attention of your primary care physician or dermatologist, you can help detect cancer in its earliest stages.

If you find any abnormalities, there are several diagnostic tests for skin cancer, starting with an initial screening.

Skin cancer screening

During the screening, your dermatologist will:

  • Discuss your family history, timeline of symptoms, and any other relevant information regarding the bump or lesion.
  • Perform a physical exam in which they will note the size, shape, color and texture of the skin abnormality.
  • Determine if there is any bleeding or crusting in the affected area.
  • Perform a full body skin exam to ensure that there are no additional growths of concern.


A dermatoscopy uses a tool called a dermascope to magnify and inspect the area in question more clearly and may even prevent the need for a skin biopsy. 

Skin biopsy

If the doctor believes that a certain area may be cancerous, they may choose to perform a skin biopsy.  A biopsy removes part or all of the suspicious area. The type of biopsy performed will depend on which type of cancer the doctor believes it may be, as well as the size of the growth.

Types of skin cancer

Skin cancer is most likely to develop in the epidermis, which is the outermost layer of skin. The epidermis is made up of three types of tissue: squamous cells, basal cells and melanocytes. The type of skin cancer that develops depends on which part of the epidermis is affected.

Cancer Type
Chance of Spreading
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Very rarely spreads to other parts of the body.
Basal cells line the deepest layer of the epidermis and can appear as open sores, shiny bumps, red patches, or lesions that resemble a scar.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Grows slowly, but can spread to other parts of the body.
Squamous cells make up most of the epidermis. Cancerous growths in these cells can appear as elevated growths, warts, scaly patches, open sores, and may crust or bleed.
Can spread aggressively to other areas of the body and is by far the most dangerous skin cancer type.
Melanocytes produce pigment and reside in the basal layer of the epidermis. Most commonly, melanomas look like moles and are black or brown in color.


Skin cancer removal: In cases where a basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma or a non-metastatic melanoma (the melanoma has not spread) is detected, surgery will often be recommended to remove the cancerous growth. In most instances, the growth will be removed completely along with a small amount of healthy skin along the edges. We also specialize in two highly effective techniques called laser surgery and Mohs surgery.

Dermatologic and laser surgery: In order to minimize the amount of scarring that is caused by traditional surgical methods, laser surgery is often preferred for non-aggressive forms of skin cancer. Some lasers vaporize (ablate) the skin’s top layer to destroy lesions. Others (non-ablative lasers) penetrate the skin without removing the top layer.

Mohs micrographic surgery: Mohs surgery offers the benefit of allowing the doctor to see where the cancer stops during the surgery. This allows the patient to keep as much healthy skin as possible because the surgeon is only removing tissue that is known to be cancerous.

Prevention: Protect your skin from the sun

  • Seek shade, especially when the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Wear protective clothing, like a long-sleeved shirt, pants, wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.
  • Generously apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen (with SPF 30 or above) to all exposed skin.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, as well as after swimming or sweating.
  • Use extra caution near water, snow and sand as they reflect the rays of the sun.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before going outdoors.
  • Remember to apply sunscreen to your lips.

Medical care and help

To find a skin cancer specialist near you, visit our providers page.

Contact us if you have any questions.

Medical Care and Help

To find a breast cancer specialist near you, visit our providers page.
Contact Us if you have any questions