Everything you need to know about living well with skin cancer
You may be wondering, what is skin cancer? Healthcare Pro are here to help explain this, as well as explore skin cancer symptoms, treatments for skin cancer, what causes skin cancer, and types of skin cancer. We hope you find this guide useful and that it helps raise awareness of how to prevent skin cancer.
Skin cancer occurs when cells in the skin become damaged, which triggers the cells to multiply and form tumours, often appearing as lumps on the skin, or unusually coloured or damaged skin patches.
Skin cancer is usually very treatable and curable, but early diagnosis is key. It is possible for skin cancer to spread and develop into a later stage cancer, which makes treatment more difficult. There are two main types of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma. The melanoma type of skin cancer may be more serious and difficult to treat than non-melanoma skin cancer. Melanoma usually develops as a mole or changes to a mole on the skin.
Skin cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the UK. The risk of developing skin cancer increases with age, but it is also the most common cancer in 15-34 year olds. Men are more likely to develop skin cancer than women.
Skin cancer is primarily caused by ultraviolet light (UV light) from the sun’s rays, which damages the skin. Using tanning beds or ‘sun beds’ is also therefore a potential cause of skin cancer, since these emit larger amounts of UV than the real sun.
UV light can damage the DNA in skin cells, causing them to mutate. Some people develop sunburn or a tan after too much sun exposure, which is the body’s way of trying to heal damaged skin cells. However, some skin cells remain mutated and can become skin cancer, although this can take years to develop, due to a build-up of mutated cells.
Skin cancer triggers, and factors that increase the risk of it developing, may also include:
• Being ‘fair’ in skin and hair type i.e. blonde or red headed with paler skin tone
• Problems with the immune system
• Family history of skin cancer
• Working outdoors
• Not using appropriate sun protection
• Having had sunburn as a child
If you have used sunbeds/tanning beds in the past, experienced lots of sunburn or spent a lot of time in the sun with little sun protection, then you may be at increased risk of developing skin cancer. However, it is never too late to take better care of your skin by stopping UV tanning beds, and ensuring you are protected from the sun. Everyone should be aware of the signs and symptoms of skin cancer, and see their GP if they notice any changes in their skin.
Skin cancer is caused by UV light which damages the cells within the skin. This can occur in two forms, with one skin cancer type being highly treatable, and the other being more serious with a likelihood of spreading. During the process of skin cancer diagnosis, doctors will identify the type of skin cancer present, which will determine what treatment options to try. The type of skin cancer a person has is determined by the type of skin cells the cancer has developed within. Lots of skin cancer cases can be successfully treated and cured. Some people have skin cancer once and some people may find that it reoccurs.
Skin cancer may be melanoma or non-melanoma.
Melanoma skin cancer is often more serious than non-melanoma skin cancer because it is more likely to spread. Melanomas may develop within existing moles, or may appear as a new mole. Abnormal looking moles sometimes develop into melanoma and signs of skin cancer moles may include:
• Irregular border
• Colour change
Melanomas tend to appear on parts of the skin that are most frequently in the sun. Men tend to get them most often on the back, and women on their legs. Melanomas develop in melanocyte skin cells. Read more about melanoma skin cancer types.
Non-melanoma skin cancer usually appears as an odd mark or lump on the skin which doesn’t go away. It could be a dry looking patch, or a firm lump. There are two types of skin cancer within the non-melanoma variety:
• Basal cell carcinoma
• Squamous cell carcinoma
Both types of non-melanoma skin cancer are usually slow to develop/grow.
Skin cancer symptoms are mostly visible changes to the skin. Skin cancer does not usually hurt, unless it has spread and grown excessively. It’s really important to go to your GP if you have any odd changes to your skin that do not clear up in a couple of weeks. It is unlikely that you have skin cancer, and there are many skin complaints that can cause similar symptoms. However, early skin cancer diagnosis is key to effective treatment, so it is best to get checked out.
The symptoms of skin cancer may differ depending on which type of skin cancer a person has, which will broadly be either melanoma or non-melanoma.
Skin cancer symptoms include:
• Lump or raised spot on the skin
• Swollen patch of skin
• Flat and dry-looking or scaly/crusty area of skin
• A new mole or freckle
• A mole or freckle that changes its appearance
Non-melanoma skin cancer symptoms are usually lumps or odd patches of skin. Non-melanoma skin cancer types are usually highly treatable, but early diagnosis is important. Read more about non-melanoma skin cancer symptoms.
Melanoma skin cancer types usually cause changes to moles or new moles to develop.
To identify a potential cancerous mole, you are advised to look for the following features or changes:
• Varied colours within a mole or lighter and darker parts
• Jagged or faded edges
• Increased size
• Odd or irregular shape
• Mole becoming raised
It’s important to note that melanoma skin cancer is quite rare and, sometimes, moles do change over time without being cancerous. New moles may also appear as we age. If you are concerned about a new or changed mole, you could take an online mole self-assessment or visit your GP. Read more about melanoma skin cancer symptoms.
If you visit your GP with symptoms of skin cancer, your GP will examine your skin and the areas you are concerned about. Many GPs hardly ever see melanoma skin cancer types, because they are fairly rare. If they think you have either type of skin cancer, they may refer you to a cancer specialist in dermatology.
During your consultation appointment in dermatology, your doctor may undertake a biopsy to remove part of the skin for closer examination and testing, or they may remove a possibly cancerous mole. If the mole/skin is confirmed as cancerous, you may have further skin removed around the site, to eradicate all of the cancerous skin cells. Read on to find out more about treatment for skin cancer.
If you have received a diagnosis of skin cancer, you are likely to be going through a troubling time. Hearing that you have skin cancer or may have skin cancer can be difficult. Many skin cancer cases result in effective treatment, and this should bring some sense of relief, but it is likely you have some concerns and anxiety. Here, we look at the ways skin cancer impacts upon daily life, as well as exploring skin cancer treatments, skin cancer prevention and where to find skin cancer support.
Skin cancer diagnosis can be shocking and bring about lots of emotions. Some people may develop skin cancer and be treated successfully. Others may have a more advanced stage or a melanoma type of skin cancer, which may be more difficult to treat. Everyone will experience skin cancer differently.
The type of skin cancer a person has will probably determine how much their skin cancer affects their daily life. Having skin cancer treatment, such as a biopsy, can be unpleasant for some people, and those with a more advanced skin cancer may require additional treatments such as chemotherapy. Some people have to wait a while for treatment on the NHS, and this can be an anxious time. We talk more about skin cancer treatment in the next section.
Some people may find that having skin cancer affects their mental health, causing anxiety, stress, or depression, even for a short period of time. There are lots of sources of support for you if you are experiencing difficulties with your mental health. Contact Mind, the mental health charity for more advice and support.
Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common type of cancer and is usually highly treatable. If a person has basal cell carcinoma, surgery to remove the affected, cancerous skin is likely to be the main treatment needed.
Squamous cell carcinoma may require additional tests as well as surgery, because it is more likely to have spread compared to basal cell carcinoma, but the risk of spreading is still small.
Some people require the following non-melanoma skin cancer treatments:
Melanoma skin cancer is also primarily treated with surgery to remove the cancerous skin. The skin will undergo a biopsy to test how likely it is that cancerous cells have spread through the body. If this is the case, the person may require additional treatment, such as chemotherapy which can be topical or delivered through a vein, radiotherapy or photodynamic therapy, as discussed above. Melanomas are treatable but may take longer to treat than non-melanoma cancers. Read more about melanoma skin cancer treatments.
Skin cancer is highly treatable and curable, but early diagnosis is key to successful skin cancer treatments.
Daily living aids are products designed to help people experiencing health conditions to carry out their usual day-to-day tasks with greater ease. Some daily living aids may be useful if you are recovering from skin cancer treatment, after having extensive surgery or chemotherapy for example, or if you have mobility problems.
PLEASE NOTE: our Expert Advice Service can only give advice about equipment and products which may help you to live more independently. They cannot give any advice on medications or treatments for symptoms of this condition.
Eating healthily is generally considered to reduce a person’s risk of developing cancer and other health conditions. Ensuring a balanced diet, full of vitamins and minerals, is essential to our health. Eating certain nutrients may also have an antioxidant effect on the body, helping reduce the risk of cancers developing, such as lycopene in tomatoes, beta carotene in orange coloured vegetables and fruit, inflammation reducing omega-3 fatty acids in fish and seeds, and vitamin C in a variety of vegetables and fruit.
Regular exercise often helps reduce our risk of developing certain healthcare conditions and contributes to our bodies functioning to their best ability. Exercise may help reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer, and some research has suggested that regular exercise may decrease the risk of skin cancer developing. Read more about how to increase your activity levels and get fitter.
Having a diagnosis of skin cancer may affect your employment in that you may have to take time off for treatment, but most people are able to return to work afterwards.
Some people with certain types of jobs, predominantly those that involve working outdoors, may need to take precautions to protect themselves from the sun, to prevent skin cancer or prevent it from returning. Read more about skin cancer prevention in the next section.
• Stay out of the sun in the hottest part of the day if you can (midday sun is usually the hottest)
• Use sun protection creams of at least SPF15, but the higher, the better!
• If you have had skin cancer in the past, use the highest factor sun cream you can
• Apply sun cream 15 minutes before sun exposure and reapply regularly throughout the day, especially after swimming
• Avoid sunburn
• Ensure young children do not get sunburned – this may increase the risk of skin cancer
• Cover up your body in the sun
• Avoid sitting in the sun
• Wear a wide brim hat and good quality sunglasses
• Check your skin regularly for signs of mole changes or any other unusual patches or lumps – see your GP if you have any concerns that these may be skin cancer symptoms
• Never use tanning beds/sunbeds
We hope this skin cancer explanation has been useful if you have a skin cancer diagnosis, are concerned about skin cancer symptoms, or know somebody who has skin cancer. Skin cancer symptoms can sometimes be difficult to spot or notice at first, but the earlier a person is diagnosed, the more likely it is that they will receive successful skin cancer treatments. In this section, we point you to skin cancer support groups and websites that provide further information and advice.
Cancer Research UK Forum – an online community for people to share their experiences of living with all types of cancer, with various threads about specific cancers such as skin cancer
Emotional Support for Skin Cancer Group on Facebook – a social media support group for anyone who has skin cancer to share experiences and talk about the disease
British Association of Dermatologists – a charity supporting the field of dermatology, with information about skin cancer and signposting to other sources of advice and information about the disease
British Skin Foundation – a UK charity that raises money for research into skin diseases such as skin cancer, with a Miiskin app that helps people track their moles and be aware of any changes, as well as online information about skin cancer symptoms, how to stay safe in the sun, etc
Cancer Research UK – the leading cancer charity, providing information and advice about all types of cancer, treatments and research projects, as well as a nurse-run helpline
Macmillan Cancer Support – charity supporting people with all types of cancer and their families, with online information and telephone helpline support regarding all aspects of living with cancer as well as local support groups and ‘Macmillan nurses’ working in the NHS
Melanoma UK – a charity supporting people with melanoma skin cancer, providing online advice and information as well as a local meeting network, an app and a telephone helpline
NHS – source of official medical advice and information about skin cancer symptoms, treatments and living with the condition
Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology. Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce and if you’re not an expert in the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of skin cancer as straightforward as possible.
Basal cell carcinoma
– the most common type of skin cancer that usually appears as a bump or pimple, which develops in the bottom layer of skin
– removal and testing of bodily tissue to ascertain and diagnose disease such as skin cancer
– a disease of the body caused by abnormal cell growth which has potential to grow and spread around the body, interfering with normal bodily function
– the building blocks of the body, involved in all biological aspects of life and keeping the human body functional
– medication treatment for cancer which aims to stop cancer cells developing and spreading which, for skin cancer, can be delivered intravenously or applied as a topical medication (on the skin)
Melanocyte skin cells
– cells within the epidermis that produce melanin, the pigment that determines skin colour and tanning of skin
– small spot that develops on the skin, made of a cluster of cells, which are usually harmless but on rare occasions develop into skin cancer
– a burn on the skin from UV radiation from the sun or a tanning bed, which indicates the skin is trying to heal, but which is a risk factor for developing skin cancer
Squamous cell carcinoma
– a fairly common skin cancer that occurs in the upper layers of skin, on the surface
– abnormal cell growth in the body which can be cancerous or benign, or pre-cancerous with potential to spread
Ultraviolet light (UV light)
– a type of radiation energy given off from the sun that is invisible but causes damage to the skin and eyes