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About Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers

Skin cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the tissues of the dermis, or skin. Different types of cancer start in the skin. The most common types of non-melanoma skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs of skin cancer:

  • A sore that does not heal
  • Unusual areas of the skin:
    • Raised, smooth, shiny, and pearly
    • Firm and like a scar; may be white, yellow, or waxy
    • Raised and red or reddish-brown
    • Scaly, bleeding, or crusty

Many other health problems can also cause these signs. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about skin cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

Image Showing Layers of the Skin

The skin, showing the epidermis (including the squamous cell and basal cell layers), dermis, subcutaneous tissue, and other parts of the skin.
The skin, showing the epidermis (including the squamous cell and basal cell layers), dermis, subcutaneous tissue, and other parts of the skin.

Specialties & Treatments

The treatment or combination of treatments each patient has depends on the stage of the cancer, recommendations of the care team, and the patient’s wishes. These are the most common types of treatment:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Biologic therapy
  • Photodynamic therapy

Learn more about types of cancer treatments.

Find a Skin Cancer Specialist

Causes & Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk.

The chance of getting skin cancer increases with sun exposure. These are other risk factors:

  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • A family history of skin cancer or unusual moles (atypical nevus syndrome)
  • Having had sunburns that blistered, especially as a child or teenager
  • Having several large or small moles
  • Having fair skin that freckles and burns easily, does not tan or tans poorly, light-colored eyes, and/or red or blond hair
  • Having radiation treatments in the past
  • Having actinic keratosis
  • Having a weakened immune system

Learn more about ways to prevent skin cancer and about cancer screenings.

Diagnosis & Stages

Diagnosis & Screening for Skin Cancer

Screening looks for cancer before you have symptoms. Screening can also check for anything unusual if you notice changes in your skin. Screening can rule out an issue or help find cancer at an early stage, when it may be easier to treat.

Doctors use these tests to screen for and diagnose skin cancer:

  • Skin exam: A health care provider checks for moles, birthmarks, or other pigmented areas that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cell or tissue samples so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Skin Cancer

Cancer stages show whether cancer has spread within the skin or to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads in the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

These are the stages used for skin cancer:

  • Stage 0 (carcinoma in situ): Abnormal cells are in the squamous cell or basal cell layer of the epidermis.
  • Stage 1: Cancer has formed, and the tumor is smaller than 2 centimeters at its widest point or has one high-risk feature.
  • Stage 2: Tumor is either larger than 2 centimeters at the widest point, or of any size with more high-risk features.
  • Stage 3: Tumor has spread to the jaw, eye socket, side of the skull, or one lymph node with the lymph node no larger than 3 centimeters.
  • Stage 4: The tumor is any size and has spread to other parts of the body and/or lymph nodes.

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if skin cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually skin cancer cells. The disease is metastatic skin cancer, not bone cancer.

Learn more about the stages of skin cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

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