The Skinny on Clinton's Cancer

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Bill Clinton hugs breast cancer survivor Tonia Conine in Oklahoma

The skin cancer discovered on President Clinton is the most common and easily curable form of the disease. Most cases of this cancer, known as basal cell carcinoma, are caused by exposure to UV radiation, primarily from the sun, and can be cleanly removed with surgery. The lesions, which were found during the President's annual physical on Friday, enlarge over a period of months and even years, and are distinguished by their shiny, firm appearance and ivory-colored borders. Some growths bleed and heal repeatedly, making it easy to mistake them for sores instead of tumors.

The most common treatment for basal cell carcinoma, and the one used by Clinton's doctors, involves scraping away the cancerous cells layer by layer and zapping surrounding tissue with an electric needle. This can be done in an office with local anesthesia. Recurrence of small tumors treated this way is about 5 percent. For larger tumors, more invasive surgery, lasers, directly applied chemotherapy agents, or liquid nitrogen are used to kill the cancer cells.

Because basal cell lesions are so common, doctors recommend a thorough skin exam every three years for those between 20 and 40 years old, and yearly for people 40 and older to detect any abnormal growths. And in between, they suggest avoiding the sun during its peak intensity in the middle of the day. If you have to go outside, protect yourself with sunscreen and clothing. If you're worried about a new growth or an existing one that has changed its appearance, see a skin specialist; he can take a tiny sample of the lesion and determine if it is cancerous.