Skin cancer is one of the most prevalent cancer cases diagnosed around the world each year. In the US it is the most common cancer diagnosed, with more cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year than breast, prostate, lung & colon cancers combined. However, if caught early, it is one of the most treatable cancers with one of the highest survival rates. The most important aspect about skin cancer is how preventable it actually is. Many of the skin cancer cases diagnosed could simply be prevented by protecting the skin from excessive UV exposure, either from the sun or indoor tanning devices.

Skin cancers are generally split into melanoma skin cancer & non-melanoma skin cancer. Non-melanoma skin cancers are the most common type. The two main types of non-melanoma skin cancers are Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) & Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) with other rarer types making up only about 1% of skin cancers diagnosed in the UK. Invasive melanomas only make up about 4% of all diagnosed skin cancer cases, but they account for the vast majority of deaths from skin cancer as they are the most likely to spread to lymph nodes or other organs.

Compared to most other cancer types, skin cancer is quite common in younger people even though it is most prevalent in older people. Before the age of 50 incidence rates are higher in women than in men. By age 65 however, rates in men are double those in women & by age 80 they are triple in men. This pattern may be attributed to differences in occupations & recreational exposure to UV rays based on sex & age. Early detection practices & use of health care may also have an influence. In the UK, seven people die from skin cancer a day, making it one of the fastest rising malignancies, especially in the 18 to 35 age group.


Due to their high treatability & low mortality, despite their high occurrence, non-melanoma skin cancers are not actually required to be reported to cancer registries, meaning that all statistics about them are best estimates & not up to date. In the last US estimate, in 2012, 5.4 million BCC & SCC skin cancers are diagnosed in 3.3 million Americans each year. In the UK, estimates from 2015, around 136,000 new non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed each year. People with compromised immune systems are at a higher risk for non-melanoma skin cancers.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

BCC is the most common type of skin cancer accounting for at least 75% of non-melanoma skin cancers cases. They develop from basal cells, hence the name, that are found in the deepest layer of the skin’s epidermis & around the hair follicle. BCCs can occur anywhere on the body, but mostly develop on areas of the skin that are often exposed to the sun, such as parts of the face like the nose, forehead & cheeks, but also on the back or lower legs.

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Statistics for Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer in the UK

There are a number of different subtypes of BCCs, such as nodular, superficial, morphoeic & pigmented. They can vary greatly in their appearance & act differently, but people often first become aware of them as a scab that bleeds occasionally & does not heal completely. The most common subtype of BCCs are nodular, about 50% of them. BCCs very rarely spread to other body parts to form secondary cancers. It is however possible to have more than one BCC at any one time. Having had a BCC does increase your risk of getting another.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer. About 20% of skin cancers are SCCs. They begin in cells called keratinocytes, found in the epidermis layer of the skin, & are caused by too much exposure to UV light. Most SCCs develop in areas that have been exposed to the sun, including parts of the head, neck, & the back of hands & forearms. They can also develop in scars, areas of skin that have been burnt in the past, or that have been ulcerated for a long time.

They are generally faster growing than BCCs but like BCCs they don’t often spread. If they do, it’s usually to the deeper layers of the skin. If left untreated, in rare occasions they can spread to nearby lymph nodes & other organs causing secondary cancers.


Malignant melanoma is the least common but more serious form of skin cancer. It can be fatal if not caught & removed early.

It is the fifth most common cancer in the UK & the 15th most common cancer worldwide. Melanoma starts in skin cells called melanocytes, that are found between the dermis & epidermis of the skin, & usually appears in or near to a mole.

While it is most common in older people, it is disproportionately high amongst young people compared to other cancer types. UV radiation from the sun or from sunbeds is the main environmental factor that increases the risk of developing malignant melanoma.

Other risk factors are pale skin that burns easily, having suffered past episodes of sunburn, having many ordinary or unusual moles, a family history of melanoma & having previously had skin cancer.

When detected in the early stages melanoma has a very high survival rate.

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Statistics for Melanoma Skin Cancer in the UK

The ABCDs of Melanoma

It is good practice to check your skin for new or changing moles or marks about once a month. To keep an eye out for melanomas it is good to keep in mind the ABCD system. A melanoma may show one or more of the following features:

AAsymmetry – an irregular shape, the two halves of the mark or mole are not the same.

BBorder – irregular edges that are difficult to define & may sometimes show notches.

CColour – the presence of more than one colour (different shades of black, brown, pink, etc.) or the uneven distribution of colour.

DDiameter – most melanomas are often more than 6 millimetres in diameter.

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Sun Safety Tips

Skin cancer incident rates may be increasing but the mortality rates are decreasing. Incidence rates may be increasing simply due to a better understanding & detection of cases but also from changes in lifestyles. More & more people are going on holidays to hot climates & not ensuring they protect their skin adequately from the sun’s harmful UV rays.

A lot of people, especially younger women, are also using sunbeds which have been proven to dramatically increase the risk of skin cancer. Decreasing mortality rates is mainly associated with early detection & the high survival rate after treatment when detected early.

The most important thing to remember about skin cancer is how preventable it is. Considering about 86% of melanomas are caused by the UV rays from the sun, taking simple steps to protect your skin from sun exposure can significantly decrease your risk of skin cancer. Regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher can reduce the risk of melanoma by 50%.

Sunscreen is not the only way to protect your skin from harmful exposure. You should avoid direct sun exposure when it is at its strongest & most dangerous, between 11 am & 3 PM. It is important when you are exposed to the sun to protect your skin with clothing, light long sleeve tops & hats & to make sure you cover any exposed skin with sunscreen. Sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun & reapplied every two hours & immediately after swimming & towel drying.

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