Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world, therefore not only is May Skin Cancer Awareness Month in the UK, it’s also World Skin Cancer and Melanoma Awareness Month.
Skin cancer is the overarching term for this type of cancer, but there are two types of skin cancers: melanoma and non-melanoma. Non-melanoma is broken down into two more groups and is different to the less common, but more serious, melanoma. We’ll be taking a look at both types of skin cancer.
In this article we’ll take a brief look at:
- The types of skin cancer.
- What are the symptoms, and what to look out for.
- Causes of skin cancers.
- Diagnosis and treatment.
- How we can help you live well with skin cancer and manage your symptoms and side effects.
Types of skin cancer
Non-melanoma refers to skin cancers which develop in the upper layer of your skin (the epidermis). You can be diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma (BCC), most non-melanoma diagnoses are BCC or squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Non-melanoma cancers usually develop in areas which are most exposed to the sun such as your face, ears, hands, shoulders, upper chest and back.
Both these types of skin cancers don’t spread to other parts of your body, although in very rare cases SCC tumours can spread to your lymph nodes.
Melanoma can spread to other parts of your body which is why it’s the more serious type of skin cancer.
Causes of skin cancer
Overexposure to the sun or sunbeds are the main cause of all skin cancers. There are a few risk factors that can increase your chance of getting this type of cancer:
- a previous non-melanoma skin cancer.
- a family history of skin cancer.
- pale skin that burns easily.
- a large number of moles or freckles.
- taking medicine that suppresses your immune system.
- a co-existing medical condition that suppresses your immune system.
You can minimise your risk of developing skin cancer by practising sun safety:
- use high factor sunscreen.
- dressing sensibly in the sun.
- limit the amount of time you spend in the sun during the hottest part of the day (11am-3pm).
- avoid sunbeds and sunlamps.
Regularly checking your skin for signs of skin cancer can help lead to an early diagnosis and increase your chance of successful treatment.
Melanoma develops when skin cells begin to develop abnormally. The type of sun exposure that can cause cells to develop is sudden intense exposure, such as sunburn.
Certain things can increase your chance of developing melanoma, such as having:
- lots of moles or freckles.
- pale skin that burns easily.
- red or blonde hair.
- a close family member who's had melanoma.
More than 1 in 4 skin cancer cases are diagnosed in people under 50, which is unusually early compared with most other types of cancer. Over recent years, skin cancer has become much more common in the UK.
Diagnosing skin cancers
If you’re concerned about a mole or mark on your skin get in touch with your GP. They may refer you to a dermatologist for further checks. Depending on the GP’s concerns you’ll receive a referral within two weeks (for urgent suspected SCC) or up to 18 weeks if your GP suspects basal cell skin cancers.
The specialist will examine your skin and may do a biopsy to confirm a diagnosis.
Melanoma is a relatively rare type of cancer. It’s important for you to check your moles and return to your GP if you notice any changes. Take photographs and document any changes to help with your diagnosis.
Treatment of skin cancers
The main treatment for non-melanoma skin cancers is surgery. Treatment is usually successful as, unlike most cancers, non-melanoma cancers have a very low risk of spreading to other parts of the body (only in very rare cases can non-melanoma cancers spread to your lymph nodes).
Other treatments for non-melanoma skin cancer include freezing (cryotherapy), anti-cancer creams, radiotherapy and a form of light treatment called photodynamic therapy (PDT).
The treatment used will depend on the type, size and location of the non-melanoma skin cancer you have.
Treatment for melanoma depends on the grade and stage of the cancer, as it can spread to other parts of your body. It can range from surgical excision for stage 1 and 2 cancers, to immunotherapy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Your oncology team will provide you with a treatment plan and talk you through your options.
Living with skin cancer
At least nine out of 10 non-melanoma cancers are successfully cured, but we understand getting a diagnosis of cancer, no matter what type or stage, can be a life-changing experience. Particularly while waiting for a referral with a specialist or you’re concerned about it coming back.
If melanoma is diagnosed and treated at an early stage, surgery is usually successful. However, if the cancer has spread your treatment can take longer and involve more options and side effects.
Treatment for advanced melanoma (stage 4) is mainly to slow the spread of the cancer and to reduce symptoms, as well as increase your life expectancy. We can help you live well with cancer.
Online treatment support and an introduction
Introduction morning - This session is suitable for anyone new to Penny Brohn UK, who has not used our services or who wants to know more.
Online Treatment Support Clinic - This session is to help people preparing for, undergoing, or recovering from cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery or immunotherapy. This clinic can help you find ways to improve wellbeing and manage side effects.
Coping with cancer
We can support you through and beyond your cancer experience.
We can help you regain your new sense of normality but also make positive lifestyle changes such as getting back into exercise, eating well and looking after your mental and emotional wellbeing.
Useful resources and further reading
Sunscreen factsheet – British Association of Dermatology
The ABCDEs of Melanoma – The Skin Cancer Foundation
Stages of melanoma – Cancer Research UK