What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is an abnormal growth of the skin cells. The biggest cause of skin cancer is too much exposure to UV light from the sun or from sunbed use.

There are two main types of skin cancer:

  1. melanoma
  2. non-melanoma.

What is non-melanoma skin cancer?

Non-melanoma skin cancers develop slowly in the upper layers of the skin and are not connected to moles. They are more common than melanoma but are not as likely to spread to other parts of the body. Most non-melanoma can be effectively treated and cured if detected early. 

The most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer in the UK is Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC). BCC grows very slowly and is very unlikely to spread to other parts of the body. Early diagnosis is still important as treatment is more difficult for BCC’s that have been there for a long time and can be more likely to grow back.

The second most common non-melanoma skin cancer in the UK is Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC). These cancers grow slowly but are more serious than a BCC because there is a small chance these cancers could spread to another part of the body. 


What are the signs and symptoms of non-melanoma?

Non-melanoma skin cancers usually develop on skin that is exposed to the sun, such as the head and neck, but they can sometimes occur on areas of the skin not ordinarily exposed to sunlight. 

Their appearance can vary but they normally appear gradually and slowly increase in size. Some of the possible signs to look out for are:

  • A scab or sore that doesn’t heal
  • A crusty or scaly patch of skin that appears red or inflamed
  • A pearly, flesh-coloured lump that doesn’t go away and is growing in size 
  • A scabby lump on the skin that keeps getting bigger 
  • A growth with a pearly rim that surrounds a central crater 

If you notice any changes to your skin, even if they are not included on this list, please make sure you speak to your GP.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops when cells called melanocytes grow more quickly than usual. While it is less common than non-melanoma, it does have the ability to spread deeper into the skin, and to other organs, if it is not treated at an early stage.

What are the signs and symptoms of melanoma?

Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body but is more common in areas that are exposed to the sun. It can present in many different shapes, sizes and colours but the most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole, a change to an existing mole or freckle or a change in appearance to a normal patch of skin.

In most cases, melanomas have an irregular shape and have more than one colour
The mole may also be larger than normal and can sometimes bleed or get itchy
Look out for a mole that gradually changes shape, size or colour

If you notice any changes to your skin, even if they are not included on this list, please make sure you speak to your GP.

How to prevent skin cancer

Sun safety - Staying safe in the sun is the most effective way to protect against skin cancer. Dr Robert Sarkany, Consultant Dermatologist at The Lister Hospital, explains how to stay safe whilst enjoying the sunshine. 

How is skin cancer diagnosed?

Skin cancer diagnosis usually starts with your GP. They will examine the abnormal mole or abnormal area on your skin and discuss with you the changes you have noticed.

They may then refer you to a specialist for further investigation and to determine a diagnosis. The specialist will do a physical examination and perform a biopsy. A biopsy is a small surgical procedure in which a small part or all of the affected area is removed so it can be looked at under a microscope to confirm the presence of cancer.

If you have noticed something has changed with your skin, or are concerned something is wrong with your skin, make an appointment with your GP right away.

Our patients share their experience of skin cancer

Carol and Pinja were both diagnosed with early-stage malignant melanoma this year. They each share their stories about how they were diagnosed, the treatment they received and their advice for others.

How to treat skin cancer

Most skin cancers are treated with surgery. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are usually removed by a dermatologist as an outpatient procedure. However, in some cases, particularly with melanoma, more extensive surgery may be required.

Mohs Micrographic Surgery is a specialist treatment for skin cancer that involves removing layers of the affected skin and tissue and reviewing these under a microscope during the procedure. As the tissue is examined during the procedure the surgeon is able to remove all the cancer cells, whilst leaving the smallest possible margin of healthy tissue. Because this surgery minimises the removal of healthy tissue, it means the surgery is less invasive and therefore can improve the cosmetic outcome.


New research into skin cancer treatments

Doctors and scientists are always looking for better ways to care for people with cancer. To make these scientific advances, research studies involving volunteers, called clinical trials, are opened at specialist centres.

Cancer clinical trials help to determine if a treatment, drug, or procedure shows a better way of treating a particular cancer or provides a way to treat a condition for which there wasn’t a treatment before. A vital role in the clinical trial process is the Principal Investigator (PI). Dr Elisa Fontana, from the Sarah Cannon Research Institute, talks about her position as a PI in clinical trials. 

Speak to a GP

There are now many ways to access GP services. So whether you’re visiting your local GP or a company funded GP, using an online subscription or paying for an appointment yourself – it’s important not to delay seeking advice.

Find a dermatologist

A consultant dermatologist is a doctor who specialises in multiple skin conditions including skin cancer.

If you are concerned about changes to your skin or would like to seek specialist advice on how to manage your risk of developing skin cancer, such as mole mapping services, you can contact a Consultant Dermatologist at HCA Healthcare UK to book an appointment.


At HCA Healthcare UK, across our network of hospitals and clinics, we have extensive expertise in diagnosing and treating cancer. Our teams of cancer specialists, including consultants, cancer nurses and other cancer healthcare experts, come together to ensure that each individual patient receives a personalised treatment plan.

Our cancer care network is based in London and Manchester, where patients can expect the very best diagnostic tests, treatment, aftercare and support.

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Sarah Cannon Research Institute

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