Information on Skin Cancer:
The types of skin cancer
There are three main types of skin cancer. These are:
- Basal cell carcinoma,
- Squamous cell carcinoma, and
- Malignant melanoma – which is discussed in another section.
Over 75% of skin cancers in the UK are basal cell carcinomas – a cancer of the cells at the bottom of the skin’s outermost layer. The second most common type of skin cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma – a cancer of the outermost skin cells. Malignant melanoma is the rarest of the three types, but has been given its own section because of its differences.
Basal cell carcinomas almost never spread to other parts of the body due to their slow growth, but if they are undetected or left without treatment, they can become ulcerated (often referred to as a rodent ulcer).
Squamous cell carcinomas are more dangerous than basal cell carcinomas in that they are known to spread to other parts of the body. Fortunately, the majority of those that detect this type of cancer early have no re-occurrence of the condition after surgery.
The causes of skin cancer
Risk factors for skin cancer:
- Exposure to sunlight (especially for those with fair skin) – Ultraviolet light from the sun is the primary cause of skin cancer in the UK. Sun beds are also thought to increase your risk.
- Radiotherapy – can cause skin cancers in later life.
- Carcinogenic chemicals – if you are handling certain chemical substances at work, you should be sure to wear the appropriate protective clothing. Chemicals suspected to be related to skin cancer include petroleum and diesel derivatives, cutting oils, carbon compounds such as coal tar, soot and pitch, paraffin waxes, arsenic, asphalt, creosotes and hair dyes. This list is by no means exhaustive, so please exercise caution. Visit the environmental risk factors section for other environmental factors.
- Immunosupressants – drugs used to lower your immunity after organ transplant do increase your skin cancer risk.
- Hereditary conditions – although considered rare, hereditary factors can also increase your risk.
- As many as 92% of suntan lotions can also contain ingredients that may be detrimental to your skin, so take a look at our article entitled “Excessive sun exposure or excessive suntan lotion exposure?”
The symptoms of skin cancer
Skin cancer can appear in different forms. Symptoms to look out for are:
- A small lump on your skin that can be smooth or waxy in appearance. It may bleed sometimes or develop a crust.
- A flat red spot which can become scaly or crusty.
- A firm, red lump.
- A hard, horny lump that is tender to the touch.
Malignant melanoma has slightly different symptoms. Click here to read about this type of skin cancer.
These symptoms can appear anywhere on your body but are generally found on skin that has been exposed to the sun, such as your face or neck, arms, hands and lower legs.
Although there are similar skin conditions that are not cancerous, you should consult with your doctor if you have any of the above symptoms – particularly if they do not disappear with 2-3 weeks.
Methods of diagnosis
The initial examination is normally carried out by your GP who simply examines the area of skin. If your doctor has any concerns, he or she will normally refer you to a dermatologist for further investigation.
Your dermatologist may advise you to undergo a biopsy to give a definitive diagnosis.
In the case of basal cell carcinoma, after surgical removal there will often be no need for further tests, because this type of cancer rarely spreads beyond the site of origin.
Squamous cell carcinomas, however, are more of a risk – so you are likely to be asked to undergo additional tests to make sure the disease hasn’t spread. These tests can include a physical examination – feeling your lymph glands, a chest x-ray, etc. Your doctor will discuss with you what tests may be necessary.