Skin cancer: what does it look like and how to mimimise your risk

As we age our risk of skin cancer increases – we explain the signs of skin cancer and why early treatment makes such a difference.

Skin cancer rates in the UK are on the rise, with almost 270,000 new cases per year. According to Cancer Research UK figures, it’s now the fifth most common cancer in the country and the cause of around 3,500 deaths annually.

Recent statistics reveal that one in four men and one in five women in the UK will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime – and rates of the disease are rising faster than any other.

But caught early, skin cancer can be treated. We’ve got the facts on the types of skin cancer and how to spot them.

A woman doctor checking the back of an older man for moles with a medical magnifier.Credit: Shutterstock /Andrey Popov

The importance of checking for skin cancer

Why we need to check our skin

Kathryn Clifford is the co-founder of skin cancer charity, SKCIN – the only UK charity that represents both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. She says the risk of skin cancer increases with age.

“We recommend getting to ‘know’ your skin – paying attention to every lump, bump, mole, freckle and mark, to help you build confidence in recognising potential abnormalities,” she advises.

“The majority of skin cancers arise on areas of skin that have been frequently exposed to the sun – such as the scalp, face, ears, neck, forearms and lower legs.

“However, it can arise anywhere on the skin, hence the need to take charge of your skin surveillance and, if possible, get someone to help you check hard-to-see areas, such as your back.”

The three types of skin cancer

The types of skin cancer

The three forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and, the most serious, malignant melanoma.

The most common form of skin cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancer

Clifford explained that Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are collectively known as ‘non-melanoma skin cancer’ (NMSC). This type of skin cancer is more commonly diagnosed than all other malignancies combined – making it the most common cancer in the UK – and worldwide.

Whilst melanoma is considered the most serious form of skin cancer, global statistics are now revealing that deaths from squamous cell carcinoma outweigh those from melanoma

Basal cell carcinoma is by far the most common form of NMSC, it is generally slow-growing and very rarely life-threatening. However, squamous cell carcinoma (the second most common form of skin cancer) grows faster and if left untreated can spread to other organs and become life-threatening.

Squamous cell carcinoma also affects a high proportion of the ageing population, presenting a growing public health concern.

The signs of non-melanoma skin cancer

What to look out for with non-melanoma

To detect NMSC or potential pre-cancerous skin lesion, look out for the following signs and symptoms:

  • One or more rough, dry or scaly, flat to slightly raised patch(es) or plaque(s) on the skin.
  • Small, hard, white or skin coloured lumps.
  • A persistent patch of reddish, irritated, rough or scaly skin with irregular borders.
  • A persistant non-healing sore.
  • A pearly white, pink or red, shiny nodule or translucent bump.
  • A pink growth with a rolled, raised border.
  • An elevated growth with a rough surface and/or central depression.
  • A wart-like growth.
  • A white, yellow or waxy scar like area.
  • Any persistent lesion that is itching, bleeding, oozing, crusting.
  • Pain or tenderness (more common in SCC).

The most serious form of skin cancer

Melanoma skin cancer

Clifford explained that Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer that arises as a new mole (70%), or can be detected by changes to the appearance or behaviour of an existing mole or freckle.

“It’s uncommon to develop new moles in adulthood, therefore if you notice one, it’s worthy of your special attention, even if it seems very small and particularly if it is very dark or almost black in appearance,” she explained.

The ABCDE of Melanoma is a handy tool that’s useful in detecting signs and symptoms that occur in moles which could be suggestive of the most common form of melanoma. But Clifford warns that it is important to seek professional advice with any new, unusual or changing lesions as soon as possible.

The ABCDE of Melanoma

When one half of the mole does not look like the other.

The borders are irregular or have blurred, undefined edges.

Various colours are visible and there is no uniform pigmentation.

The size of the mole is greater than 6mm (but it could be much smaller).

Any changes to the lesions shape, size, colour, surface characteristics or sensation (including inflammation, itching, bleeding oozing or crusting) – is one of the biggest indicators of a potential melanoma.

Melanoma in skin of colour

What to look out for in dark or black skin

Whilst Melanoma is less common in dark or black skin, when it does arise it is more likely to present on the palms of the hands, but more commonly on the soles of the feet or under the fingernails or toenails. People of all skin types should be mindful to check these areas too.

When checking the palms and soles also look for a patch of discoloured skin which may be very subtle such as an ill-defined, brown or blue-grey patch that can look like a stain or a bruise that won’t heal.

Look for any pigmentation beneath or surrounding the nail bed, a pigmented band or streak that’s usually linear, or any persistent non-healing sore or ulcer.

How to minimise your risks of skin cancer

Learn the five rules of sun protection

Clifford says that if you are worried about developing skin cancer, remember that it is the one cancer we can physically see developing in it’s early stages – and if detected, diagnosed and treated early, the vast majority of cases are treatable or curable.

Be vigilant with your skin surveillance and reduce any further risk by protecting your skin daily using these five tips.

Five star sun protection

Cover as much skin as possible.

Us a minimum SPF 30 with 4 or 5 star UVA protection. Apply liberally and reapply every two hours if outdoors for prolonged periods.

This will help to protect the scalp and shade the face and neck.

Try to buy ones with UV protection.

Keep out of the sun whenever possible, particularly during peak UV hours (11am-3pm).

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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