Skin Cancer

Several types of cancer that originate in the skin, most of which are associated with prolonged exposure to sunlight

  • Fair-skinned people are most at risk
  • Exposure to the sun and the use of sunbeds are risk factors
  • Age and gender as risk factors depend on the type

Skin cancer (including the non-melanoma skin cancers as well as malignant mela-noma) is the most common type of cancer in the UK. In recent years, the global incidence has escalated, and the condition now affects millions of people.

The usual cause of skin cancer is prolonged exposure to the harmful ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. The risk is higher if you live or take holidays in areas with intense sun. The closer you are to the equator, the greater the risk. The recent depletion of the ozone layer is thought to play a part in increasing the incidence of skin cancer because the ozone layer acts as a shield against harmful ultraviolet light. In addition, sunbeds, which use ultraviolet light, increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

If you work outdoors or have been sunburned (particularly in childhood), you could be vulnerable to skin cancer. People who have fair skin are especially susceptible because they have low levels of melanin, the pigment that gives the skin its colour and helps to protect it from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

To reduce the risk of developing skin cancer, try to avoid exposure to the sun and protect your skin when outdoors (see Safety in the sun). Avoid the use of sunbeds altogether. You should also check your skin regularly for any unusual changes (see Checking your skin) and consult your doctor promptly if you notice any such changes

What are the types?

Skin cancer is categorized into two broad groups: malignant melanoma, and non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC), which encompasses all the types that are not malignant melanoma, such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Malignant melanoma is relatively rare in the UK, although its incidence is increasing, and about 10,400 new cases were diagnosed in 2006. It can spread rapidly to other parts of the body and causes more deaths than other skin cancers. NMSC is very common, with about 81,600 new cases being diagnosed in 2006, although this figure is believed to be an underestimate. The most common types of NMSC are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Malignant melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma are associated with overexposure to the sun and harmful ultraviolet light from sunbeds. Kaposi’s sarcoma is uncommon and usually occurs only in people with AIDS (see HIV infection and AIDS).

What might be done?

Skin cancer can usually be cured if it is diagnosed early. You should consult your doctor promptly if you notice any unusual changes in your skin. You may need to have a skin biopsy. During this procedure, a small area of skin is removed and examined under a microscope for abnormal cells.

The type of skin cancer and spread of the disease determine the treatment and outlook. Sometimes, only the affected area of skin needs to be treated.

Most skin cancers can be removed surgically, but skin grafting may be necessary if a cancer has invaded large areas of surrounding skin tissue. If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, radiotherapy or chemotherapy may be needed.

Test: Skin Biopsy

Self-help: Checking your Skin

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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