Your Complete Guide to Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer diagnosed in the UK, with as many as 156,000 cases diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer each year. Fortunately, most forms of skin cancer are highly treatable, with treatment often able to eliminate cancer.

This article will explore the different types of skin cancer, their symptoms, causes, and treatments. We will also discuss the various stages of skin cancer and what this may mean for a patient’s treatment plan, and tips on how you can prevent skin cancer. 

What Is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is a form of cancer that affects the skin cells, causing abnormal growth of cells in the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin). When cells become damaged, this triggers mutations that lead the cells to grow out of control. Skin cancer is mostly caused by too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Early detection of skin cancer offers the greatest chance of survival.

Types Of Skin Cancer

There are many different types of skin cancer, but the three main types are:

  • Melanoma skin cancer
  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

Skin cancer is often limited to one area of the skin, but it can spread to the lymph nodes and other organs in more severe cases.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is extremely common, with 75% of all non-melanoma cases of skin cancer being BCC. BCC develops in the basal cells, and these are found in the deepest layer of the skin, known as the epidermis. This type of cancer rarely spreads around the body, making it a highly treatable form of skin cancer. 

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common form of skin cancer, is faster growing than basal cell carcinoma and impacts the squamous cells in the outer layer of the epidermis. Most SCC’s develop in areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun. SCC’s don’t often spread and when caught early, most are curable.   

Melanoma Skin Cancer

Melanoma is a rarer form of skin cancer and is often much more serious than BCC or SCC and affects the skin cells called melanocytes that give our skin its colour. Melanoma can also develop in the form of moles that have changed shape or colour or new moles that appear unexpectedly. Melanoma must be treated immediately, as it may spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma is most often found on the back, legs or chest. 

Skin Cancer Symptoms

It is important to know where skin cancer can form to be aware of what to look for. Signs of skin cancer are commonly found on areas of the body that frequently are exposed to the sun, such as the back, neck, face, scalp, ears, arms, and legs. It is important to note that skin cancer can occur even in areas not often exposed to the sun, though this is rarer. 

Symptoms of BCC include:

  • A waxy or pearly bump
  • A scar-like or brown lesion
  • A sore that bleeds and scabs but never fully heals

Symptoms of SCC include:

  • A firm red lump
  • A scaly, crusty or scabbed lesion

Symptoms of melanoma include:

  • A mole that changes shape, size, colour, or that bleeds
  • A coloured lesion with an irregular border
  • A painful or itchy lesion
  • A brownish area with darker speckles

In some cases, skin cancer is not immediately apparent, and every person and case of skin cancer is unique. What is important is that you frequently check your body thoroughly for any changes in the skin tone or moles or unusual growths. If you notice anything unusual, it is crucial to get it checked out by a medical professional immediately. 

For more information on what to look for and the skin services we provide, please visit our skin lesion and mole removal page.

What Causes Skin Cancer?

It is not always known what causes skin cancer, though some things can significantly increase your risk of developing it. One of the most common causes of skin cancer is exposure to UV light. This is the light that emits from the sun, meaning that those who spend a lot of time outside without UV protection may be at higher risk of developing skin cancer. In addition, people that use indoor tanning beds are at increased risk of developing skin cancer. 

People who have a lot of moles are also at a higher risk of skin cancer. If you have a lot of moles, particularly larger ones, you must monitor your moles for any signs of changes. People with paler skin are also at a higher risk of developing skin cancer than those with a close family member who has developed skin cancer. 

Stages of Skin Cancer

The stages of skin cancer are how a doctor will ascertain the severity of the issue. With BCC and SCC, the stages are classed as:

  • Stage 0: also known as carcinoma in situ – cancer is only present on the upper layer and hasn’t spread to other parts of the skin.
  • Stage 1: the cancer is 2cm in size or smaller.
  • Stage 2: the growth is larger than 2cm but no larger than 4cm.
  • Stage 3: the growth is 4cm or larger and has spread to deeper layers of skin, a lymph node or bone.
  • Stage 4: a tumour of any size that has spread to multiple lymph nodes, bones or organs.

The melanoma stages are as follows:

  • Stage 0: also known as melanoma in situ – during this stage the cancer cells are contained in the topmost layer of the skin, with no spreading.
  • Stage 1: the cancer is less than 1mm thick and has not spread to other parts of the body or lymph nodes.
  • Stage 2: the cancer is between 1 and 2mm thick and ulcerated or 2 and 4mm thick and not ulcerated.
  • Stage 3: cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the growth site.
  • Stage 4: cancer has spread to other organs.

The key difference in staging between melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer is the size and spread of the disease. Since non-melanoma skin cancer (BCC and SCC) are slower growing, they are less serious even at larger sizes than melanoma. 

Skin Cancer Diagnosis

A skin cancer diagnosis will usually begin with a visual examination from your GP. If they suspect skin cancer, they will refer you to a dermatologist specialist, who will examine the growth and perform tests. 

The most common and effective way to diagnose skin cancer is to biopsy the growth. In many cases, the biopsy will remove the entire growth, which will remove the cancer entirely. You may also be sent for imaging tests such as an MRI, x-ray or CT scan to ensure the cancer has not spread to other body parts. 

How To Prevent Skin Cancer

The most important thing you can do to prevent skin cancer is to use a high SPF on all areas of your body exposed to sunlight – even during the winter months. It is best to avoid using indoor tanning beds and lamps entirely. In addition, it can help to be well covered when out in the sun. Consider wearing long-sleeved and legged lightweight, breathable fabrics in warmer weather to keep cool. 

Skin Cancer Treatment

The most common treatment for many skin cancers is surgery, and the success rate for skin cancer surgery is excellent. You may also be treated with radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other non-surgical options. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your doctor, who will be able to give you all the information on the best possible course of treatment based on the stage and type of skin cancer. 

With any illness, catching it early is critical. If you are concerned about a growth or mole, it is crucial to get checked out as soon as possible. Contact The McIndoe Centre today for a consultation so that you can get the peace of mind you deserve with the best quality care and treatment.

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