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Precancerous lesions are areas on the skin that display abnormally rapid cell growth. They may be visible on the surface of the skin, or inside the genital organs, typically the vagina. Though these lesions aren't technically considered cancerous yet, doctors generally feel that they have the potential to develop into cancer. Identifying and treating lesions before they develop into full-blown cancer is considered crucial to cancer prevention. Doctors have not yet developed a way to accurately determine which ones will develop into cancer, so they usually advise removal of all precancerous lesions for the sake of safety.
Many types of skin cancer can begin with precancerous skin growths. Actinic keratosis is generally considered a common type of precancerous lesion, one that may develop into squamous cell carcinoma, an often aggressive form of skin cancer. These lesions most often occur with exposure to UV rays, and they are usually flaky and red in appearance. They're found most often on the upper body, face, scalp, and ears.
Atypical moles are another type of precancerous lesion. These moles may have uneven borders, and often grow rapidly. They may be asymmetrical in shape, and they are usually multi-colored. These moles are believed capable of developing into malignant melanoma. Most dermatologists remove them for biopsy purposes right away.
The cutaneous horn is another lesion that generally develops in older people, and it looks like a small, bony protrusion. There may often be a cancerous tumor below this protrusion.
Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) is a type of precancerous lesion that generally occurs in the skin of the vaginal wall. Doctors believe there is a strong chance that these could develop into vaginal cancer. These lesions are usually found during a routine pelvic examination. There are generally considered to be three distinct stages of VAIN, with the third stage sometimes being classified as very early stage vaginal cancer.
Treatment for precancerous lesions generally involves their removal, and often, their biopsy. Actinic keratosis is often removed cryogenically, by freezing the lesions off of the skin with a liquid nitrogen solution. Atypical moles are often surgically excised with a scalpel. VAIN lesions are often removed with electrical currents, in a procedure known as loop electrosurgical excision, or by laser therapy. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be used to treat some precancerous lesions, especially those that are considered very likely to develop into cancer.