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Understanding Skin Cancer: different types, warning signs, prevention and when to seek help

Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer worldwide. Despite its common occurrence, early detection remains key to successful treatment. Knowing the warning signs can encourage individuals to seek timely medical attention, potentially saving lives. Here’s what you need to know about the different types of skin cancer, the seven warning signs to look out for, and when to seek medical help.

The different types of skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most diagnosed form of cancer in humans. There are two main types: non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSK) and melanoma skin cancer. Here we take a look at the characteristics of each type:

Non-melanoma skin cancer

According to the British Skin Foundation, non-melanoma skin cancer accounts for 90% of all skin cancers. It starts in the top layer of skin and is usually caused by overexposure to ultraviolet light from the sun as well as sun beds and sunlamps. The good news is that is can often be easily treated and early detection generally results in positive outcomes. The most common forms are basal-cell skin cancer and squamous-cell skin cancer, or carcinoma.

  • Basal-cell carcinoma (BCC): BCC mainly affects people with fair skin and is commonly found on the head, neck, and nose. The only symptom may be the lesion itself. It’s highly treatable when caught early, with a low likelihood of spreading to other parts of the body. Recurrence is rare and most cases can be cured with appropriate treatment, typically surgery, radiotherapy, or chemotherapy. There are three main forms of BCC: nodular, superficial and morpheaform. So, what does BCC look like?
  • Nodular BCC looks like a dome-shaped bump which may be pearly or shiny and vary in colour from pink or red to brown or black. It may bleed easily and if not treated, can ulcerate, giving it a crater-like appearance.
  • Superficial BCC is typically found on the chest, back, arms, and legs. It looks like a scaly pink or red plaque and may have a raised, pearly white border. If left untreated, it can become crusty or ooze.
  • A morpheaform BCC is a waxy, light-coloured lesion which is hard, shiny and smooth. It often looks like a scar and can be tricky to spot.

Squamous-cell carcinoma (SCC): Most individuals diagnosed with squamous-cell skin cancer can be cured. Although some cases may involve spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs, early treatment can still lead to a favourable outcome. Tumours typically appear on skin exposed to the sun: the face, neck, hand and forearm. They often look like a rough, scaly red or brown patch that may be thick or crusty and develop as a raised growth or lump or an open sore that bleeds easily and doesn’t heal.

Melanoma Skin Cancer

Melanoma skin cancer ranks as the fifth most prevalent cancer in the UK. It originates from melanocytes, cells nestled in the skin’s deeper epidermal layer, just between the basal cell layers. Melanocytes produce melanin, which is the pigment responsible for skin colouration, offering protection against the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Although typically linked to sun exposure, melanoma can also occur in sun-shielded regions. While it can affect individuals of any age, it’s notably more prevalent among older populations.

Often the first sign of melanoma is a change in the shape, colour, size or feel of an existing mole, but may also appear as a new mole. Melanoma skin cancer is the most dangerous type because it’s much more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not found and treated early.

The seven warning signs of skin cancer

Now we know about the main types of skin cancer that can develop, it’s vital to be aware of the warning signs that something may be wrong. They include:

  1. New or changing spots: Pay attention to spots on your skin that are new or have undergone noticeable changes, especially if they aren’t brown.
  2. Skin changes in odd places: Skin changes occurring in unusual or unexpected areas may indicate skin cancer. Some examples are under your fingernails, soles of your feet, palms, eyelids, scalp, inside your ear, tongue and eyes.
  3. Bleeding lesions: Any lesion that bleeds without apparent cause warrants investigation.
  4. Painful lesions: Lesions that are painful to the touch should be examined by a healthcare professional.
  5. Itchy spots: Persistent itching in a particular spot on the skin could be a sign of skin cancer.
  6. Crater-like appearance: Keep an eye out for spots on the skin that resemble a crater.
  7. Rapid growth: If a spot on your skin is rapidly increasing in size, it’s important to seek medical advice promptly.

Will I recover from skin cancer?

Several factors influence the outlook for individuals diagnosed with skin cancer. They include:

  • Early detection: if you notice any changes to your skin, it’s better to be safe not sorry. NHS residents in Wakefield can ask their GP to refer them for assessment and treatment by an experienced dermatologist.
  • The size and depth of the cancer: large or deep tumours present greater challenges in treatment.
  • Location of the cancer: this can impact treatment options and prognosis.
  • Growth rate: faster-growing cancers may require more aggressive treatment approaches.
  • The type of cancer: different types of skin cancer have varying prognoses and treatment strategies.
  • Your immune system: people with weakened immune systems may have a slightly higher risk of cancer recurrence.

Skin cancer prevention: How to reduce your risks

As with so many other aspects of our health, prevention is better than a cure. It’s important to recognise that ultraviolet (UV) rays are active all year round, not just in the summer months. Reducing your exposure to UV rays can help keep your skin healthy and lower your chances of getting skin cancer. Here are some tips to protect your skin when the UV index is three or higher.

Stay in the shade, especially between 11am and 3pm.

  • Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs.
  • Wear a hat with a wide rim to shade your face, head, ears and neck.
  • Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Use a suncream with an SPF of 15 or higher right throughout the year.
  • Avoid artificial UV sources: the dreaded sunbeds and sunlamps!

Ask your GP to refer you to Novus Health dermatology

At Novus Health, we’re committed to providing comprehensive care for NHS patients in Wakefield who are concerned about skin cancer. Our team of experienced General Practitioners with Special Interests (GPwSI) is dedicated to offering personalised support and guidance.

If you notice any signs or symptoms of skin cancer or have concerns about your skin health, don’t hesitate to speak with your GP. They can refer you to us for expert evaluation and assistance.  Early detection and timely intervention are essential in the fight against skin cancer – we’re here to help you every step of the way.

Together, we can work towards better skin health and improved outcomes for all.

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