Skin Cancer Types: From Basal Cell Carcinoma to Melanoma

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Skin cancer stands as one of the most prevalent types of cancer globally, and there’s a growing necessity to spread awareness about its various forms, risks, and preventive measures. The condition originates from the abnormal growth of skin cells and can develop on any part of the body, though it is most commonly found in skin areas frequently exposed to the sun.

Understanding the types of skin cancer is crucial not just for healthcare professionals but also for individuals to recognize the early signs and seek timely diagnosis and treatment. This article aims to demystify the different kinds of skin cancer, from Basal Cell Carcinoma to Melanoma, elaborate on their causes, and shed light on the importance of early detection and prevention methods.

Skin Cancer Types

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) is the most common of the skin cancer types, arising from the basal cells that constitute the lowest layer of the epidermis. While it is commonly found on the head, neck, and arms—areas heavily exposed to UV radiation—it can occur in less exposed areas as well. Fortunately, BCC is frequently treatable when caught early, and its spread to deeper tissues, like nerves and bones, is rare. However, without early intervention, it can lead to significant disfigurement due to its destructive nature.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) is another prevalent form of skin cancer that originates from the squamous cells, which make up much of the skin’s upper layers. Like BCC, SCC is often attributed to chronic sun exposure and can appear on the face, neck, arms, chest, and other sun-exposed areas. However, individuals with frequent sun exposure, fair skin, or who use indoor tanning beds are at a heightened risk of developing SCC. It can become invasive and spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.


Melanoma is known for being the most serious and potentially deadly form of skin cancer. It develops in the melanocytes, the cells that give skin its color. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, not only in areas exposed to the sun; this includes the head, neck, and arms, as well as the legs and abdomen, typically more common in women. Its development can be associated with a familial history or a weakened immune system and is influenced by factors such as fair skin and a history of sunburns. Early detection of melanoma is crucial as it can spread rapidly to other parts of the body.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Merkel Cell Carcinoma is less common but notably aggressive and fast-growing. It begins in the Merkel cells at the base of the epidermis and tends to occur on sun-exposed areas of skin, like the face, head, and neck. The rarity of this cancer type makes it less known, but awareness is pivotal due to its potential for rapid spreading to other body parts, including lymph nodes and organs.


Ultraviolet Light Exposure

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the foremost culprit in skin cancer development. Both naturally occurring sunlight and artificial sources, such as tanning beds, emit UV rays that can damage the DNA of skin cells. Over time, this damage can result in mutations and the accumulation of DNA errors that skin cells can no longer repair, paving the way to cancerous growths. The skin changes typically start in the layers exposed to the sun, such as the epidermis, and can entail both UVA and UVB radiation, which contribute to skin aging and burning, respectively.

Risk Factors

Several risk factors amplify a person’s likelihood of developing skin cancer. One of the most significant factors includes having fair skin, as the lower levels of melanin provide less protection from damaging UV rays. Furthermore, individuals with a history of frequent sun exposure, especially those who have had multiple sunburns or indulge in indoor tanning, are also at higher risk. Other risk factors encompass a weakened immune system, certain medications that can worsen the effects of sun exposure, and a personal or family history of skin cancer. Additionally, the presence of Actinic Keratosis (AKs), which are scaly patches that develop from prolonged UV exposure, may increase the likelihood of Squamous Cell Carcinoma.

Skin Cancer Types

Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of skin cancer is fundamental in ensuring an early diagnosis, which is pivotal in improving treatment outcomes. Skin changes are often the most visible indicator of potential skin cancers. It is vital to examine your skin regularly for any new growths, sores that heal and then re-open, and existing spots that begin to grow or change in any way. These can encompass changes in color, shape, or texture.

Significant caution should be exercised for lesions that itch, bleed, or do not heal over time. In melanoma, for instance, the development of a new pigmented or unusual-looking growth on your skin can be a preliminary symptom. The ABCDE rule is a guide for the usual signs of melanoma, where A stands for asymmetry, B for border irregularity, C for color changes, D for diameter greater than 6mm, and E for evolving shape and size.

Basal cells and squamous cells, the more common types of skin cancer, often emerge as a pearl-like bump or a pinkish patch, or frequently as a scaly patch or a sore that heals and then re-opens. The frequent sun exposure to certain body parts such as the face, neck, arms, and chest makes these areas especially prone to these abnormal growths.

Constant vigilance and immediate consultation with a healthcare provider upon spotting any suspicious skin changes are integral to an effective defense against the progression of skin cancer. It’s also important to consider professional screenings as an addition to self-examination, especially for individuals at high risk or with skin of color, as symptoms might be less noticeable.

Skin Cancer Types 1

How Skin Cancer Types Look Like

Basal Cell Carcinoma Appearance

Basal Cell Carcinoma usually presents as a shiny, translucent, or pearl-like bump on sun-exposed areas like the face, ears, and neck. These growths may also appear as flat, flesh-colored, or brown scar-like lesions. A distinctive feature is their tendency to bleed or ooze after minor injury and their persistent growth.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma Appearance

Squamous Cell Carcinoma can manifest as a red, scaly, rough patch of skin, which might bleed if injured. These patches or nodules are often tender to the touch and may look crusty or form a sore that doesn’t heal properly. They are typically found on areas of the body that receive frequent sun exposure such as the rim of the ear, face, near the mouth, and the arms.

Cells Involved In Skin Cancer

An understanding of the skin’s structure is crucial when exploring the factors that contribute to skin cancer. The skin consists of three primary layers, each with unique cell types potentially susceptible to cancerous mutations. Here, we will delve into these layers and highlight the cells commonly involved in the development of skin cancer.

The epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin, is chiefly comprised of three types of cells: basal cells, squamous cells, and melanocytes. Each of these cells can give rise to different types of skin cancer if they undergo DNA changes or mutations that lead to uncontrolled growth.

Basal Cells are located at the bottom of the epidermis and are responsible for producing new skin cells. Cancer originating from these cells leads to Basal Cell Carcinoma, and such cancers typically grow slowly and rarely spread to other parts of the body. However, they can cause significant local damage if not treated promptly.

Squamous cells lie above the basal cells and are flat cells that move up to the surface of the skin as they mature and eventually shed away. Squamous Cell Carcinoma arises when mutations occur in these cells, and they can become invasive if neglected.

Melanocytes produce melanin, the pigment that colors our skin, and lie deeper within the epidermis. Melanoma, a much more aggressive type of cancer, develops from these cells. When these cells mutate, they can proliferate and spread to other organs, becoming life-threatening.

Skin Cancer Types 2

Skin Cancer Prevention

Prevention is a crucial strategy in the battle against skin cancer. By mitigating risk factors and taking proactive steps, individuals can significantly reduce their likelihood of developing skin cancer. There are several measures one can take to protect their skin from the primary risk factor—UV radiation.

Firstly, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher is essential in protecting the skin from UVA and UVB rays. It’s important to apply sunscreen generously on all exposed skin and to reapply it every two hours, or more often if swimming or sweating profusely. In addition to sunscreen, wearing protective clothing such as wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeve shirts, and sunglasses with UV protection can also shield the skin from direct sun exposure.

Regular self-examination of the skin for any new or changing lesions is also critical and should be complemented by annual skin exams by a healthcare provider, especially for those with a family history of skin cancer or who have had previous skin cancers.

Lastly, avoiding indoor tanning beds, which can expose the skin to high levels of UV radiation, is a preventative measure that cannot be overstated. The risks associated with these devices have been linked to an increased risk of all skin cancer types, including melanoma.

Associated Procedures

The detection and diagnosis of skin cancer often involve several associated procedures, which are crucial in confirming the presence and extent of skin cancer. These procedures can range from non-invasive visual examinations to more involved surgical interventions necessary for both diagnosis and treatment.

Dermatologists frequently perform a comprehensive skin examination as a primary method to visually check for any signs of skin cancer. If a suspicious lesion is found, a biopsy may be conducted. This involves removing a small sample of skin tissue, which is then analyzed in a lab to determine if cancer cells are present.

Several biopsy techniques may be used depending on the type and location of the skin lesion. These can include shave biopsies, where the top layers of skin are shaved off; punch biopsies, which remove a deeper, circular section of skin; and excisional biopsies, where the entire growth is removed along with a margin of normal skin. Each technique has its own indications and utility based on the clinical situation.

For individuals diagnosed with skin cancer, treatment procedures vary by the type and stage of the cancer. Procedures can range from minor surgeries, like simple excisions, to more complex approaches, such as Mohs surgery, where layers of cancer-containing skin are progressively removed and examined until only cancer-free tissue remains. In certain cases, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be recommended, especially for more advanced or aggressive cancers.

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Doctor’s Role in Skin Cancer Detection

Physicians, particularly dermatologists, play an instrumental role in the early detection and management of skin cancer. They are trained to differentiate between benign and malignant skin changes and guide patients through the diagnostic process. During routine check-ups or dedicated skin exams, doctors look for irregularities that may indicate skin cancer. This involves assessing the size, color, shape, and texture of moles, blemishes, and lesions.

When a suspicious area is identified, the doctor may perform a biopsy to obtain a definitive diagnosis. If skin cancer is confirmed, the physician becomes central to outlining suitable treatment options based on the type, stage, and location of the cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health. They may perform surgical procedures themselves or work in conjunction with oncologists if more comprehensive treatment like chemotherapy or immunotherapy is deemed necessary.

Moreover, doctors have a critical role in educating patients on the importance of sun protection and skin cancer prevention. They can offer personalized advice on how to perform self-examinations, recognize the warning signs of skin cancer, and select appropriate sunscreens.

Over to you

Taking the initiative in your health is vital, especially when it comes to skin cancer. Equipped with the knowledge of different types of skin cancer, their causes, and warning signs, you can take proactive steps in prevention and early detection. Remember, identifying skin cancer early can greatly improve treatment success and reduce the risk of significant complications. Regularly examining your skin for any changes and consulting with a healthcare provider when you spot something unusual can save your life.


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Schadendorf, Dirk, Alexander CJ Van Akkooi, Carola Berking, Klaus G. Griewank, Ralf Gutzmer, Axel Hauschild, Andreas Stang, Alexander Roesch, and Selma Ugurel. “Melanoma.” The Lancet 392, no. 10151 (2018): 971-984.

Becker, Jürgen C., Andreas Stang, James A. DeCaprio, Lorenzo Cerroni, Celeste Lebbé, Michael Veness, and Paul Nghiem. “Merkel cell carcinoma.” Nature reviews Disease primers 3, no. 1 (2017): 1-17.

Narayanan, Deevya L., Rao N. Saladi, and Joshua L. Fox. “Ultraviolet radiation and skin cancer.” International journal of dermatology 49, no. 9 (2010): 978-986.

Callen, Jeffrey P., David R. Bickers, and Ronald L. Moy. “Actinic keratoses.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 36, no. 4 (1997): 650-653.

Duarte, Ana F., Bernardo Sousa-Pinto, Luís F. Azevedo, Ana M. Barros, Susana Puig, Josep Malvehy, Eckart Haneke, and Osvaldo Correia. “Clinical ABCDE rule for early melanoma detection.” European Journal of Dermatology 31, no. 6 (2021): 771-778.

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Mila Grandes
Mila Grandes
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Mila Grandes is an accomplished marketing professional with a wealth of experience in the content marketing industry. Currently serving as the Head of Content at DrTalks, based in Calgary, Canada, Mila is responsible for leading high-performing teams in developing engaging and impactful content strategies. Throughout her career, Mila has developed...

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