Skin cancer types and how to check for skin cancer

Do you know what skin cancer looks like? The signs to look for and how to do a skin cancer check at home

27th July 2023 | Author: Victoria Woollaston-Webber

Wondering what skin cancer looks like? We’ve got expert advice from leading dermatologists on the different types of skin cancer and what symptoms and signs to look out for

Melanoma skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, and since the early 1990s incidence rates have more than doubled.

Over the coming years, due to a number of factors including hotter summers and longer life expectancy, rates are projected to rise by 9%, and by 2040, there could be as many as 26,500 new cases of melanoma skin cancer every year.

That’s the equivalent of three people being diagnosed every hour.

We’re not sharing these stats to frighten you, but we do want to highlight just how prevalent the skin condition has become and what this means for your risk of getting the disease.

We also want to help.

In this guide, we get expert advice on what the three main types of skin cancer are, what skin cancer symptoms and signs you need to be aware of and how to carry out a skin cancer check at home.

If you’re worried about any moles or skin conditions, please seek medical advice from a professional. This guide is not, and should not be used a substitute for medical support and is purely a guide to encourage you to get help. 

Types of skin cancer

What breaks the skin barrierShutterstock

Skin cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the skin cells and there are three main types:

  • Melanoma: Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. It starts in the melanocytes, which are the cells that produce melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its colour. Melanoma can spread to other parts of the body, and it is the most common cause of death from skin cancer.
  • Basal cell carcinoma: Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It starts in the basal cells, which are the cells that line the bottom of the outermost layer of your skin, known as the epidermis. Basal cell carcinoma is rarely fatal, but it can be disfiguring if it’s not treated.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer. It starts in the squamous cells, which are the cells that make up the outer layer of the epidermis. Squamous cell carcinoma can be fatal if it is not treated, but it is less likely to spread than melanoma.

Melanoma accounts for about 1 in 10 cases of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma accounts for about 7 in 10 cases of skin cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for about 2 in 10 cases of skin cancer.

What causes skin cancer?

Skin cancer occurs when the DNA in skin cells becomes damaged, usually from prolonged exposure to UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds. UV radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation that can penetrate deep into the skin and cause uncontrolled cell growth and the formation of malignant tumors.

Factors that can increase your risk include:

  • Fair skin: People with fair skin are more likely to develop skin cancer than people with darker skin.
  • Family history: People who have a family history of skin cancer are more likely to develop skin cancer themselves.
  • A history of sunburn: People who have had a lot of sunburns are more likely to develop skin cancer.
  • Using tanning beds: People who use tanning beds are more likely to develop skin cancer.

What does skin cancer look like? Skin cancer symptoms to look for

What does skin cancer look like and what skin cancer symptoms to look out forAAD/mamabella

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there are a number of melanoma skin cancer symptoms to look out for – the so-called ABCDEs of melanoma.

  • A stands for ASYMMETRY: In skin cancer cases, one half of the mole or spot will look different from the other half.
  • B stands for BORDER: The spot may have an irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined “blurry” border.
  • C stands for COLOUR: Melanoma skin cancer spots tend to vary in colour from one area to the next. This can range from shades such as tan, brown, or black, to areas of white, red, or blue.
  • D stands for DIAMETER: While melanomas are usually larger than 6 mm in diameter, or about the size of a pencil eraser, when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
  • E stands for EVOLVING: Any spot that suddenly appears, looks different from the rest, and evolves and changes in shape, size, and colour comes with increased risk of being a skin cancer symptom.

Basal cell carcinoma skin cancer symptoms look like:

  • A dome-shaped growth
  • A shiny, pinkish area
  • A black or brown growth, or a white or yellow waxy growth
  • A sore that heals then returns

Squamous cell carcinoma skin cancer symptoms look like:

  • A crusted or rough bump
  • A red, rough flat area
  • A dome-shaped bump that grows and bleeds
  • A sore that either does not heal or heals and returns

Cancer Research also has a long list of images that show what different types of skin cancer looks like here.

How to perform a skin cancer check at home

“Performing a skin self-exam means taking note of all the spots you see on your body such as moles, freckles, and age spots,” explains the AAD. “Skin cancer can develop anywhere on your skin including the palms of your hands, soles of your feet, mouth, eyes, genitalia, and buttocks. It’s also one of the only cancers you can usually see on your body.”

If you have darker skin, skin cancer is more likely to develop in areas that aren’t exposed to the sun, such as under or around your nails, palms, or soles.”

Once you know the skin cancer symptoms to look out for, Dr Hope Mitchell MD, FAAD, explains that a skin cancer check should involve:

  1. Examine your body front and back in a full-length mirror, then look at the right and left sides with your arms raised.
  2. Bend your elbows and look carefully at your forearms, underarms, fingernails, and palms of your hands.
  3. Look at the backs of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, your toenails, and the soles of your feet.
  4. Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror. Part your hair for a closer look at your scalp.
  5. Check your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.

“Make sure to record the spots on your skin and nails, including the location of the spot and whether it has changed,” says Dr. Mitchell. “Ask someone for help when checking your skin, especially in hard-to-see places like the scalp and back. If you notice a spot on your skin that is different from the others or that changes, itches, or bleeds, make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist.”

Can skin cancer kill you?

Yes. Skin cancer can kill you and Cancer Research stats show that 2,300 people die from melanoma skin cancer in the UK every year, that’s more than six a day.

As with most cancers, though, catching it early and getting treatment reduces this mortality risk. In fact, almost 9 in 10 people diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer in England survive their disease for ten years or more. The odds are then even better for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.

How to prevent skin cancer

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect your skin from UV radiation. You can do this by:

  • Avoiding the sun during the middle of the day, when UV radiation is strongest.
  • Wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day, even on cloudy days.
  • Wearing protective clothing, such as a hat and sunglasses, when you are in the sun.
  • Avoiding tanning beds.

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