3 types of skin cancer

Skin cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. Excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays are the most common cause of the disease. This prolonged exposure then causes the skin cells to grow in a rapid, out of control way ultimately leading to the formation of a cancerous tumour on the skin. In fact over 1,000,000 people are affected each year. They mostly arise from the upper layer of the skin – epidermis. However, skin cancers may develop anywhere on the skin, including the scalp, lips or under-nail skin.

Skin cancers are most common after 50 years of age, but they may occur at any time.
What many people do not know is that not all skin cancers are the same. Like all body tissues our skin is made up of cells: basal cells, squamous cells and melanocytes. Skin cancer types are named after the skin cell in which the cancer develops, therefore, skin cancer can be divided into three different types of cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma and Malignant Melanoma.

Carcinoma is another word for cancer. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are often grouped together and called ‘common’ or ‘non-melanoma’ skin cancers.

What does skin cancer look like?

Skin cancer generally stands out as being quite different to surrounding skin. If a spot strikes you as being a bit odd, it probably is!

Skin cancer mostly appears as a new and unusual looking spot. It may also appear as an existing spot that has changed in colour, size or shape.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin

These carcinomas are found usually in places on the body that have been exposed to the sun, like ears, the face and the mouth. It begins when the squamous cells of the epidermis start to grow in a rapid and uncontrollable way which ultimately leads to the development of a cancerous tumour.

Symptoms include a bump that turns in to an open sore (ulceration), reddish, flat spot (from 5 mm to few cm) that is sometimes crusty, a bump that gets larger and a sore that won’t heal.

Left untreated, it can spread quickly to other parts of the body, like the lymphatic system, bloodstream, and nerve routes. Fortunately, there can be effective treatments for the cancer even when it has spread. This contrasts with melanoma where there are very limited treatments for a melanoma that has spread.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma of the skin

Accounting for more than 75% of skin cancers diagnosed, basal cell carcinoma is the most commonly developed skin cancer. As the name suggests it begins when the process of cell division goes wrong in the basal cells of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) and a cancerous tumour forms.

These carcinomas are most commonly found on the face, neck, and hands. It is considered highly treatable and rarely spreads to other parts of the body. However, it can disfigure the skin if left untreated for a long period. Also, it can grow locally into any organ in its path. This means that if bone or muscle or nerves are beneath the skin, the BCC can grow into these structures destroying them. This can be quite serious on the face. For example, a BCC near the eye can grow into and destroy the eye.

Symptoms include a sore that oozes or bleeds, a redness area that is irritated, a yellow or white area that resembles a scar, and a pink pearly bump.


Melanoma is the most dangerous and deadly type of skin cancer. It can develop on any part of the body, however the arms, legs and trunk are the most common area of the body. It develops in melanin producing skin cells called melanocytes. Malignant melanoma begins when the process of cell division goes wrong in these melanocytes and they start to divide and multiply uncontrollably leading to the development of a tumour. When detected early, it is considered highly treatable.

Symptoms include a mole, freckle, or new/existing spot that changes color in size, shape, and color. It may have an irregular outline and possible be more than one color.

Your best defense in preventing skin cancer is to avoid excessive exposure to the sun. When you are outdoors, be sure to always wear a sunscreen, and stay in a shady area if possible! Whilst skin blemishes and odd looking moles may be non-cancerous, they are a cause for concern. If you notice anything suspicious on your skin which does not disappear within a month then you should go see your doctor immediately. Early detection is a key element in the successful treatment of skin cancer and so it is far better to take the time and get yourself tested.

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