Non-melanoma skin cancer - everything you need to know

18th May 2023

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Skin cancer is usually grouped into two main categories: melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer – so what is non-melanoma skin cancer? How common is it? What different types of non-melanoma skin cancer are there? And what are we doing to make a difference?

What is non-melanoma skin cancer?

Non-melanoma skin cancer is the umbrella term for different types of skin cancer that are not melanoma, which is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Skin cancer slowly develops in the upper layers of the skin, normally appearing as a firm red lump or discoloured patch of skin that doesn’t go away over the course of a few weeks.

Skin cancer most often develops on areas of skin that are more frequently exposed to the sun – this is because UV rays from the sun can damage the DNA in our cells, which over time increases the risk of a cell becoming cancerous.

What types of non-melanoma skin cancer are there?

Basal cell carcinoma

This type of skin cancer starts in cells at the bottom of the epidermis (top layer of skin). Basal cell carcinoma accounts for 75% of skin cancers. It can look like a pearly-white or pink lump, or a red scaly patch.

Sometimes there are bits of brown or black within the lump or patch. It slowly gets bigger with time and may start to bleed or become crusty. It does not tend to spread to other parts of the body.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Around 20% of all skin cancers are squamous cell carcinoma, which starts in the cells lining the top of the epidermis (top layer of skin).

It normally looks like a firm pink lump with a rough or crusty surface. It can feel sore to the touch and bleed easily. This type of skin cancer has a low risk of spreading to other parts of the body.

Bowen’s disease

Bowen's disease appears as a scaly red patch that can be itchy. It is a precancerous form of squamous cell carcinoma, meaning it can develop into squamous cell carcinoma if not treated.

Actinic keratoses

Actinic keratosis is also a precancerous condition that can develop into squamous cell carcinoma over time. These dry, scaly patches can appear after years of UV damage from too much sun exposure.

Sometimes they can become quite thick. They can be pink, red, or brown, and be a range of sizes – from a few millimetres to a few centimetres across.

What causes non-melanoma skin cancer?

As with all skin cancers, the most important thing you can do to prevent non-melanoma skin cancer is to avoid too much sun exposure, which will in turn reduce the amount of UV exposure to your skin – UV rays can damage the DNA in our cells and make mutations more likely to occur, which can increase your risk of skin cancer.

If you have fair or very fair skin, tend to burn easily, or have a lot of freckles or moles, you have a higher risk of skin cancer. A family history of skin cancer is also important to be aware of as a risk factor for skin cancer. In addition, certain medications or medical conditions that suppress your immune system can also make skin cancer more likely to develop.

How is non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you may have skin cancer, they normally refer you to a dermatologist. This skin specialist will take a closer look at the mole under a dermascope (a kind of handheld microscope) to look for signs of cancer.

If they suspect cancer, they might remove the affected skin, along with a margin of healthy skin, and send it away to be tested in the lab.



How is non-melanoma skin cancer treated?

The most common treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer is surgery, where the affected tissue and some of the surrounding skin is removed.

Some other treatments that may be recommended include radiotherapy, cryotherapy (where the affected tissue is frozen), or photodynamic therapy (a type of light treatment).

As non-melanoma skin cancer tends not to spread, these treatments are usually successful. In the unlikely event that it has spread to other parts of the body, other treatment approaches may be needed.

What is Worldwide Cancer Research doing to make a difference?

Since our charity was founded in 1979, we have funded over £6.7 million of research on skin cancer, including many projects focusing on non-melanoma skin cancers.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, we funded several projects led by Professor Stephen Bown, who at the time was focusing on using lasers to treat many different diseases, including cancer.

Thanks in part to our support, Stephen propelled photodynamic therapy, a type of laser therapy, from the lab into the clinic. It is now used today to treat, or even cure, some types of cancer including non-melanoma skin cancer.

You can help start new cures for cancer - ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat it - by supporting Worldwide Cancer Research.

Become a Curestarter today.

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