Skin Cancer in Children

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is a type of cancer that grows in the cells of the skin. It can spread to and damage nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body. Skin cancer is rare in children.

What causes skin cancer?

Exposure to sunlight is the main factor for skin cancer. Skin cancer is more common in people with light skin, light-colored eyes, and blond or red hair. Other risk factors include:

  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Having skin cancer in the past
  • Time spent in the sun
  • Sunburns
  • Having many freckles
  • Having more than 50 moles
  • Having atypical moles (dysplastic nevi)
  • Radiation therapy in the past
  • Taking a medicine that suppresses the immune system
  • Certain rare, inherited conditions such as basal cell nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome) or xeroderma pigmentosum (XP)

What are the types of skin cancer?

There are 3 main types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma. The majority of skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma. It’s a very treatable cancer. It starts in the basal cell layer of the top layer of skin (epidermis) and grows very slowly. The cancer usually appears as a small, shiny bump or nodule on the skin. It occurs mainly on areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, arms, hands, and face. It more often occurs among people with light-colored eyes, hair, and skin.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer is less common. It grows faster than basal cell carcinoma, but it’s also very treatable. Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as nodules or red, scaly patches of skin, and may be found on the face, ears, lips, and mouth. It can spread to other parts of the body, but this is rare. This type of skin cancer is most often found in people with light skin.
  • Melanoma. This type of skin cancer is a small portion of all skin cancers, but it causes the most deaths. It starts in the melanocyte cells that make pigment in the skin. It may begin as a mole that turns into cancer. This cancer may spread quickly. Melanoma most often appears on fair-skinned people, but is found in people of all skin types.

What are the symptoms of skin cancer?

Symptoms of basal cell carcinoma appear on areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, face, neck, arms, and hands. The symptoms can include:

  • A small, raised bump that is shiny or pearly, and may have small blood vessels
  • A small, flat spot that is scaly, irregularly shaped, and pale, pink, or red
  • A spot that bleeds easily, then heals and appears to go away, then bleeds again in a few weeks
  • A growth with raised edges, a lower area in the center, and brown, blue, or black areas

Symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma appear on areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, face, neck, arms, and hands. They can also appear on other parts of the body, such as skin in the genital area. The symptoms can include:

  • A rough or scaly bump that grows quickly
  • A wart-like growth that may bleed or crust over.
  • Flat, red patches on the skin that are irregularly shaped, and may or may not bleed

Symptoms of melanoma include a change in a mole, or a new mole that has ABCDE traits such as:

  • Asymmetry. One half of the mole does not match the other half.
  • Border irregularity. The edges of the mole are ragged or irregular.
  • Color. The mole has different colors in it. It may be tan, brown, black, red, or other colors. Or it may have areas that appear to have lost color.
  • Diameter. The mole is bigger than 6 millimeters across, about the size of a pencil eraser. But some melanomas can be smaller.
  • Evolving. A mole changes in size, shape, or color.

Other symptoms of melanoma can include a mole that:

  • Itches or hurts
  • Oozes, bleeds, or becomes crusty
  • Turns red or swells
  • Looks different from your child's other moles

How is skin cancer diagnosed?

The healthcare provider will examine your child's skin. Tell the healthcare provider:

  • When you first noticed the skin problem
  • If it oozes fluid or bleeds, or gets crusty
  • If it’s changed in size, color, or shape
  • If your child has pain or itching

Tell the healthcare provider if your child has had skin cancer in the past, and if other your family members have had skin cancer.

Your child's healthcare provider will likely take a small piece of tissue (biopsy) from a mole or other skin mark that may look like cancer. The tissue is sent to a lab. A doctor called a pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope. He or she may do other tests on them to see if they have cancer cells. The biopsy results will likely be ready in a few days or a week. Your child's healthcare provider will tell you the results. He or she will talk with you about other tests that may be needed if cancer is found.

How is skin cancer treated?

Types of treatment for basal cell and squamous cell cancers include the following.

Chemotherapy

This is medicine applied as a cream or ointment onto the skin. It’s also called topical chemotherapy. This kind of medicine is only used if the cancer is just in the top layers of the skin. The medicine is applied several times a week for a few weeks.

Radiation therapy

This is treatment with high-energy X-rays. Electron beam radiation is often used for skin cancer. This type of radiation doesn’t go deeper than the skin. This helps limit side effects. The radiation damages the cancer cells and stops them from growing. Radiation therapy is a local therapy. This means that it affects the cancer cells only in the treated area.

Mohs surgery

This procedure removes the cancer and a small amount of normal tissue. It’s done on sensitive areas, such as the face. During Mohs surgery, your child is given a local anesthetic to numb the area being treated. The cancer is removed from the skin one layer at a time. Each layer is checked under a microscope for cancer. If cancer cells are seen, another layer of skin is removed. Layers are removed until the doctor doesn’t see any more cancer. The procedure may take several hours, depending on how many layers need to be removed. After this surgery, the cancer is fully removed and the wound can be repaired.

Curettage and electrodesiccation

This procedure removes tissue and burns (cauterizes) the area. Your child is given a local anesthetic to numb the area. The doctor then uses a sharp spoon-shaped instrument called a curette to remove the cancer. This is called curettage. After curettage, the doctor passes an electric needle over the surface of the scraped area to stop bleeding, and destroy any other cancer cells. After it heals, a flat white scar may remain.

Simple excision

This is done to cut the cancer from the skin, along with some of the healthy tissue around it. Your child is given a local anesthetic. Then, the doctor uses a scalpel to remove the tumor from the skin. The doctor may also remove some of the normal skin around the tumor. This is called a margin. Stitches or a bandage strip may be used to close the wound. The tissue that was removed is sent to a lab for analysis. If the report shows that not all the cancer was removed, your child will likely need another procedure to remove the rest of the cancer.

Shave excision

This method is used for cancer that is only in the top layers of the skin. Your child is given a local anesthetic. Then, the doctor uses a small blade to shave off the tumor. The goal is to remove the tumor at its base.

Cryosurgery

This method uses cold to destroy the cancer cells. This method is best for very small cancers near the skin’s surface. The doctor uses a device that sprays liquid nitrogen onto the tumor. This freezes the cells and destroys them. The dead skin then falls off. Your child may have some swelling and blistering in the area after treatment. A white scar is usually left behind. The procedure may need to be repeated.

Types of treatment for melanoma include the following.

Surgery

The goal of surgery is to remove the melanoma, while leaving as much of the nearby skin as intact as possible.

Radiation therapy

The goal of radiation is to destroy cancer cells. It may be used after surgery to try to kill any cancer cells that are left. It may also be used to help treat melanoma that has come back after initial treatment or has spread to other parts of the body. Radiation therapy uses high energy X-rays or other types of radiation.

Chemotherapy

The goal of chemotherapy is to destroy cancer cells directly to shrink tumors that can’t be removed by surgery. Or it may be used to kill cells that have spread to other areas of the body (metastatic melanoma). Chemotherapy is done with medicines.

Biological therapy

The goal of biological therapy is to shrink advanced melanoma tumors. This type of therapy is done with medicines. The medicines use chemicals that affect the immune system. It is also called immunotherapy, antibody therapy, or vaccine therapy. The medicine uses the body’s immune defense to attack the cancer cells. Common medicines for this include interferon and interleukin-2. These may also be given along with chemotherapy for stage IV melanomas. Medicines called immune checkpoint inhibitors can also boost the body's immune response. These include pembrolizumab and ipilimumab.

Targeted therapy

The goal of targeted therapy is to shrink advanced melanoma tumors. This type of therapy is done with medicines. The medicines target specific parts of melanoma cells. For example, medicines called BRAF inhibitors target cells with a change in the BRAF gene. This gene is found in about half of all melanomas. BRAF inhibitors include vemurafenib and dabrafenib.

What are possible complications of skin cancer?

Possible complications depend on the type and stage of skin cancer. Melanoma is more likely to cause complications. And the more advanced the cancer, the more likely there will be complications.

Complications may result from treatment, such as:

  • Loss of large areas of skin and underlying tissue
  • Scarring
  • Problems with the area healing
  • Infection in the area
  • Damage to nerves
  • Return of the skin cancer after treatment

Melanoma may spread to organs throughout the body and cause death.

Preventing skin cancer

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the Skin Cancer Foundation advise you to:

  • Minimize your child’s exposure to the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Apply sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher that protects against both UVA and UVB rays to the skin of children older than 6 months of age that are exposed to the sun.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, even on cloudy days. Reapply after swimming.
  • Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand. They reflect the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase the chance of sunburn.
  • Make sure your child wears clothing that covers the body and shades the face. Hats should provide shade for both the face, ears, and back of the neck. Wearing sunglasses will reduce the amount of rays reaching the eye and protect the lids of the eyes, as well as the lens.
  • Don’t expose your child to UV radiation from sunlamps or tanning beds.

The American Academy of Pediatrics approves of the use of sunscreen on babies younger than 6 months old if adequate clothing and shade are not available. Parents should still try to avoid sun exposure and dress a baby in lightweight clothing that covers most surface areas of skin. But parents also may apply a small amount of sunscreen to the baby’s face and back of the hands.

How is skin cancer managed?

If your child has skin cancer, you can help him or her during treatment in these ways:

  • Your child may have trouble eating. A dietitian or nutritionist may be able to help.
  • Your child may be very tired. He or she will need to learn to balance rest and activity.
  • Get emotional support for your child. Counselors and support groups can help.
  • Keep all follow-up appointments.
  • Keep your child out of the sun.

After treatment, check your child's skin every month or as often as advised.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your child's healthcare provider if you see any unusual changes in your child's skin.

Key points about skin cancer in children

  • Skin cancer is rare in children.
  • Skin cancer is more common in people with light skin, light-colored eyes, and blond or red hair.
  • Follow the ABCD rule to tell the difference between a mole and melanoma.
  • Biopsy is used to diagnose skin cancer.
  • Skin cancer can be treated with surgery, medicine, and radiation.

Staying out of the sun is the best way to prevent skin cancer.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.