What is skin cancer – and how to avoid it

What is skin cancer and how to avoid it

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK, with more than 200,000 cases diagnosed each year. So it’s well worth knowing what it is, what it looks like, when to seek medical attention – and how to avoid it all together.

What is skin cancer?

Cancer can affect any area of the body – including the skin, your largest organ. It occurs when the DNA in your skin is damaged – usually by UV radiation. There are two types of skin cancer to be aware of, non-melanoma skin cancer, which is more common, and melanoma skin cancer.

What is non-melanoma skin cancer?

Lots of people associate skin cancer with moles, but non-melanoma skin cancer can present as a patch of abnormal skin, a spot or sore.

Non-melanoma skin cancer is actually a group of different kinds of cancer that develop relatively slowly in the upper layers of your skin. It is generally considered less serious than melanoma skin cancer, because it is less likely to spread to other parts of the body.

The two main types of non-melanoma skin cancer are Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous cell carcinoma.

What are the symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancer?

Basal cell carcinoma usually appears as a lump that’s shiny and pink or white, with a waxy appearance. It can also look like a red scaly patch, and may have brown or black bits within it. The lump tends to get bigger, can be crusty and can bleed.

Squamous cell carcinoma also appears as a firm pink lump, but will have a more crusty surface. It may feel tender to the touch, and may also bleed easily – and is more likely to spread.

If you have a spot, sore, lump or patch of dark/red skin that isn’t going away and isn’t behaving itself, is painful or itchy - it’s important to take it to a GP to check it over.

See Cancer Research pictures of non-melanoma skin cancer

How is non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed?

Once you’ve seen your GP, if they’re worried, they will refer you to a specialist. They’ll have a look at the area through a special sort of magnifying glass, and possibly go on to take a biopsy. They may remove the entire area, or just take a sample of it to send to the laboratory for testing. Depending on how much is removed, you may or may not need stitches.

How is non-melanoma skin cancer treated?

Treatment will always depend on the type, size and location of the tumour. Non-melanoma skin cancer is most usually treated with surgery, removing the cancer and some of the skin around it. Alternative treatments can include creams, freezing, and radiotherapy.

What is melanoma skin cancer?

Melanoma skin cancer starts in skin cells called melanocytes, which produce a pigment called melanin and give the skin it’s natural colour, and protects it from UV light. When skin gets damaged by UV light, it can cause cells to grow out of control and lead to cancer.

Melanoma skin cancer is the skin cancer that’s associated with new and changing moles, and it can spread easily to other parts of the body.

What are the symptoms of melanoma skin cancer?

Some melanomas develop from existing moles, and some grow on normal skin. So if you notice a new or changing mole it’s really important to get to a GP to get it checked out. Cancer Research suggest following the ABCDE rules when you look at your moles:

A – Asymmetrical

Most moles will be relatively symmetrical, so look out for moles that have an uneven shape.

B – Border

Melanomas may have blurry edges, or a jagged shape rather than a smooth, firm border.

C – Colour

Look out for moles that have more than one shade within them, or are uneven in colour.

D – Diameter

Most melanomas are over 6mm wide – check out any moles larger than the nib of a pen.

E – Evolving

Melanomas can change in size, shape and colour, can bleed or itch. Keep an eye on yours so you know what’s normal for you, and can spot changes.

If you notice any ABCDE signs, or have a mole or freckle that looks inflamed or is painful and itchy, take it to a GP as soon as possible.

See Cancer Research pictures of melanoma skin cancer

How is melanoma diagnosed?

Just like non-melanoma skin cancer, diagnosis is usually through a biopsy, sent off to a laboratory to check for abnormal or cancerous cells.

How is melanoma skin cancer treated?

Treatment will depend where the melanoma is, if it’s spread, and your general health. The earlier a melanoma is found, the easier it is to treat successfully.

Surgery is still the main treatment for melanoma skin cancer, but radiotherapy may also be used to reduce the size of large melanomas, and targeted medicines and immunotherapy can help stop melanomas from growing. In some more advanced cases, chemotherapy may be used to kill cancer cells.

What causes skin cancer?

Most skin cancers of any type are caused by exposure to the sun.

Lifestyle factors, age and genetics can also play a part, but in the UK 85% of melanomas for instance, are caused by too much ultraviolet radiation, which damages the DNA in your skill cells.

Who is at risk of skin cancer?

Age – your risk of skin cancer increases with age.

Sun exposure – if you spend a lot of time outside, have skin that is only exposed for short intense periods (for instance on holiday), or have had a history of sunburn (especially in childhood) you are at an increased risk of developing skin cancer.

Other UV exposure – Those who use sunbeds or have done so in the past will also be at an increased risk.

Skin colour – people with white skin are more likely to get skin cancer, because they have less protective pigment.

Medical conditions – some skin conditions, medicines or illnesses can increase your risk of skin cancer, including things like having a weakened immune system.

Moles and freckles – the more moles or freckles you have, the higher your risk of developing a melanoma.

Family history – you can inherit a genetic pre-disposition for skin cancer, so it’s worth knowing your family history.

How can you avoid skin cancer?

The best way to avoid skin cancer is to stay out of the sun, cover up, use sun cream properly – and particularly avoid getting burnt. Even slight pinkness indicates damage to your skin, and that doesn’t go away when the redness fades.

It’s also worth being very aware of your body, especially if you have moles, and checking them regularly for changes. Taking pictures of any particularly noticeable moles, and measuring them, is a good way to keep an eye on any changes.

If you’re not sure, if you notice anything, or if you’re even slightly worried, make an appointment to see a GP.

Find out more about how to stay safe in the sun.

How can Equipsme help?

All Equipsme members have access to a 24/7 GP appointment booking service, so if you’ve noticed something that’s not right and you can’t get in to see your community GP, please do give them a call. A doctor can look at your mole or skin patch and make a referral if they need to – depending on your level of cover, you may then be able to refer an open referral to AXA Health to see if you can claim for a private diagnosis.

Equipsme plans do not cover the treatment of cancer once it has been diagnosed so at that point you would return to the NHS for treatment.

Find out more about how to use the GP service


Further reading about skin cancer

British Skin Foundation
Cancer Research – non-melanoma skin cancer
Cancer Research – melanoma skin cancer
NHS - non-melanoma skin cancer
NHS – melanoma skin cancer
British Association of Dermatologists