Skin cancer (non-melanoma) 

Introduction 

Skin cancer

Skin cancer expert Barry Powell explains what skin cancer is, the questions to ask if you’re diagnosed and the treatment options.

Media last reviewed: 16/11/2012

Next review due: 16/11/2014

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Non-melanoma skin cancer refers to a group of cancers that slowly develop in the upper layers of the skin.

The term 'non-melanoma' distinguishes these more common kinds of skin cancer from the less common skin cancer known as melanoma, which spreads faster in the body.

The first sign of non-melanoma skin cancer is usually the appearance of a lump or patch on the skin that doesn't heal after a few weeks.

In most cases, cancerous lumps are red and firm, while cancerous patches are often flat and scaly.

See your GP if you have any skin abnormality that hasn't healed after four weeks. Although it is unlikely to be skin cancer, it is best to be sure.

Read more about the symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Types of non-melanoma skin cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancers usually develop in the outermost layer of skin (epidermis) and are often named after the type of skin cell from which they develop. The two most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer are:

  • basal cell carcinoma – starts in the cells lining the bottom of the epidermis and accounts for about 75% of skin cancers
  • squamous cell carcinoma – starts in the cells lining the top of the epidermis and accounts for about 20% of skin cancers

Why does it happen?

The exact cause of non-melanoma skin cancer is unknown, although it is linked with overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light.

UV light comes from the sun, as well as artificial sunbeds and sunlamps.

In addition to UV light overexposure, there are some things that can increase your chances of developing non-melanoma skin cancer, such as:

  • a family history of the condition
  • pale skin that burns easily
  • a large number of moles or freckles

Read more about the causes of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Who is affected?

Non-melanoma skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the world. There are an estimated 100,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer every year in the UK.

Non-melanoma skin cancer affects slightly more men than women.

Diagnosis

Your GP can examine your skin for signs of skin cancer. They may refer you to a skin specialist (dermatologist) or a specialist plastic surgeon if they are unsure or suspect skin cancer.

The specialist will examine your skin again and will perform a biopsy to confirm a diagnosis of skin cancer.

A biopsy is an operation that removes some affected skin so it can be studied under a microscope.

Read more about diagnosing non-melanoma skin cancer.

Treating non-melanoma skin cancer

Surgery is the main treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer. This involves removing the cancerous tumour and some of the surrounding skin.

Other treatments for non-melanoma skin cancer include cryotherapy, creams, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and a treatment known as photodynamic therapy (PDT).

Treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer is generally successful as, unlike most other types of cancer, there is a considerably lower risk that the cancer will spread to other parts of the body.

It is estimated that basal cell carcinoma will spread to other parts of the body in less than 0.5% of cases. The risk is slightly higher in cases of squamous cell carcinoma, which spreads to other parts of the body in about 4% of cases.

Treatment for basal cell carcinoma is completely successful in approximately 90% of cases. Between 70% and 90% of people with squamous cell carcinoma will be completely cured.

Read more about treating non-melanoma skin cancer.

Complications

If you have had non-melanoma skin cancer in the past, there is a chance the condition may return. The chance of non-melanoma skin cancer returning is increased if your previous cancer was widespread and severe.

If your cancer team feels there is a significant risk of your non-melanoma skin cancer returning, you will probably require regular check-ups to monitor your health. You will also be shown how to examine your skin to check for tumours.

Prevention

Non-melanoma skin cancer is not always preventable, but you can reduce your chances of developing the condition by avoiding overexposure to UV light.

You can help protect yourself from sun damage by using sunscreen and dressing sensibly in the sun.

Sunbeds and sunlamps should also be avoided.

Regularly checking your skin for signs of skin cancer can help lead to an early diagnosis and increase your chances of successful treatment.

Read more about preventing non-melanoma skin cancer.




Page last reviewed: 03/10/2012

Next review due: 03/10/2014

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