Facts about skin cancer
- Skin cancers are divided into two main types: melanoma and non-melanoma
- Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland
- There are over 10, 300 non-melanoma skin cancers and over 1,000 melanomas diagnosed every year
- The number of people diagnosed rises each year
- More men than women are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer
- Being SunSmart is vital to preventing skin cancer
This page has information about:
- The skin
- Different types of non-melanoma skin cancer
- Risks and causes of skin cancer
- What skin cancer can look like
- How to prevent skin cancer
- Diagnosing skin caner
For information on melanoma skin cancer, visit our melanoma page.
What is the skin?
The skin is an organ, like your heart and kidneys. The skin is the biggest organ in the body and does several important jobs such as acting as a barrier and protecting everything inside your body.
The skin is made up of two main layers: the epidermis on the outside and the dermis underneath. New cells are made in the deep layers of the epidermis and are pushed towards the surface. The epidermis is mainly made up of flat, scale-like cells called squamous cells. These cells make a substance called keratin, a tough, waxy substance that helps make the skin strong enough to protect the body. At the base of the epidermis are cells called melanocytes which make a pigment called melanin. This pigment gives your skin its colour and protects it from ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight. Under the squamous cells are round cells called basal cells. These cells constantly divide to form new keratin-producing cells to replace the ones that wear off the skin’s surface.
Different types of skin cancer
There are different types of skin cancer. The type of skin cancer depends on the skin cells that are affected.
- If the cells affected are the basal or squamous cells, it is called non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC)
- If the melanocytes are affected, it is called melanoma skin cancer. Read about melanoma here.
Skin cancer (non-melanoma)
Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland. There are several different types of non-melanoma skin cancer. The most common types are basal cell cancer (BCC) and squamous cell cancer (SCC). Sometimes these cancers are called ’carcinomas.’
Basal cell cancer (BCC)
The most common type of skin cancer, this develops from basal cells which are in the deepest layer of the epidermis and around the hair follicle. It develops mostly in areas of skin exposed to the sun, including parts of the face such as the nose, forehead and cheeks. It can also develop on your back, particularly in men, or lower legs. It is most often diagnosed in people of middle or old age.
Basal cell cancer may start as a small lump that gets bigger slowly over months and years. The edges usually have a shiny or pearly look and the middle is usually sunken. Sometimes the middle becomes crusty or an ulcer develops. It usually will not hurt unless knocked but it can be itchy and may bleed if scratched.
It is very rare for basal cell skin cancer to spread to another part of the body to form a secondary cancer. It is possible to have more than one basal cell cancer at any one time. Having had one increases your risk of getting another.
Squamous cell cancer (SCC)
This cancer begins in cells called keratinocytes, which are the cells nearest the surface of your skin, lying just above the basal cells. Squamous cell cancer most often develops in areas that have been exposed to the sun, including parts of the head, neck, and on the back of your hands and forearms. Rarely, it can develop around your vulva or anus. It can also develop in scars, areas of skin that have been burnt in the past or areas of skin that have been ulcerated for a long time.
Squamous cell skin cancer can look like a crusty, scaly ulcer. Or it may be bumpy and hard and develop into an ulcer. This type of cancer is generally faster growing than basal cell cancer though it does not usually spread.
Risks and causes of skin cancer
- Sun exposure- Most skin cancers are caused by sun exposure, either long-term, or short periods of intense sun exposure and burning, perhaps while on holiday. Remember even on a cloudy day, UV rays can be strong enough to cause skin damage that can lead to skin cancer
- Sunbeds- Using sunbeds greatly increases your risk
- Skin types- People who have fair skin; lots of moles or freckles; or red or fair hair have a greater risk
- Age- Non-melanoma skin cancers develop very slowly. As you get older you have more time to build up sun damage. However, young people can get skin cancer too
- Having had skin cancer before– If you have had a non-melanoma skin cancer, you have about a 10 times higher risk of a second non melanoma skin cancer
- Other skin conditions-People with certain skin conditions or skin treatments can be more likely to develop skin cancer. These include: psoriasis, scarring; solar keratosis; and atopic dermatitis
- Family history- If someone in your family has had any type of skin cancer, this increases your risk
What skin cancer can look like
- A spot or sore that does not heal within 4 weeks
- A spot or sore that itches, hurts, is scabbed or crusty, or bleeds for more than 4 weeks
- Areas where the skin has broken down (an ulcer) and doesn’t heal within 4 weeks, and you can’t think of a reason for this change
Basal cell skin cancers look like a small, slow growing, shiny, pink or red lump. They can also look like red scaly patches. If left, basal cell skin cancers tend to become crusty, bleed, or develop into an ulcer. They are most common on the face, scalp, ears, hands, shoulders and back.
Squamous cell skin cancers are usually pink lumps. They may have hard or scaly skin on the surface. They are often tender, but not always. They can bleed easily and develop into an ulcer. They are most common on the face, neck, lips, ears, hands, shoulders, arms and legs.
These pictures are just a guide and if you are worried about any moles or skin changes it is important to see your GP to get them checked.
All pictures are courtesy of Cancer Research UK.
What you can do to prevent skin cancer
One of the best ways to prevent skin cancer is to be SunSmart
- Avoid sunburn
Sunburn is a sign that your skin has been damaged by too much UV radiation. Over time this damage can build up and lead to skin cancer. Protect your skin.
- Avoid the sun and spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm
- Wear a T shirt, hat and sunglasses
- Use sunscreen with at least SPF 30 (the higher the better), with good UVA protection (the more stars the better)
- Never use sunbeds
Using a sunbed causes skin cancer. Even one sunbed session can increase your risk of developing squamous cell skin cancer by 67% and basal cell skin cancer by 29%.
- Apply enough sunscreen
Research shows that most people apply much less than they need to. Apply the equivalent of a shot glass full of sunscreen to each limb and to your body and about half this much to your face. Always reapply after changing or swimming- even if your sunscreen is waterproof.
Checking for skin cancers
Early detection is key to surviving skin cancer. Make a habit of checking your own skin for any changes so you can notice if something changes. If you find any changes, ask your GP to check them.
Diagnosing skin cancer
If you notice a change on your skin that does not heal over 4 weeks and that you cannot explain, visit your GP. He/she may refer you to a skin specialist called a dermatologist who will give you a skin exam where they will look at your skin under a special magnifying glass. The dermatologist or a plastic surgeon may also remove the mole or affected skin, so that the cells can be looked at under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. During a biopsy, at least 2-5 mm of normal looking skin will be removed as well to ensure that all unusual tissue is removed. A biopsy is usually performed under local anaesthetic.
Depending on what the doctor sees when he or she looks at biopsy tissue under the microscope, you may not need any further treatment. If you do, the doctor will discuss this with you.
For a copy of the Marie Keating Foundation’s skin cancer information leaflet, click here.