Skin cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma, or BCC, is a cancer of the basal cells at the bottom of the epidermis. It is sometimes called a rodent ulcer. It's very common. About 75% of all skin cancers in the UK are BCCs. Most BCCs are very slow-growing and almost never spread to other parts of the body.

When BCCs are treated at an early stage, they are usually completely cured. However, some BCCs are aggressive, and, if left to grow, they may spread into the deeper layers of the skin and sometimes to the bones. This can make treatment difficult.

A small number of BCCs may come back in the same area of skin after treatment. This is known as a local recurrence.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma, or SCC, is a cancer of the keratinocyte cells in the outer layer of the skin. It's the second most common type of skin cancer in the UK. Most people treated for SCC are completely cured with simple treatment. Usually, squamous cell carcinomas are slow-growing and only spread to other parts of the body if they are left untreated for a long time. Occasionally though, they can behave more aggressively and spread at a relatively early stage.

Malignant melanoma

This is a less common type of skin cancer. Melanoma behaves differently to basal cell and squamous cell cancers. It can grow quickly and needs to be treated early. This section does not cover malignant melanoma, but we have separate information on malignant melanoma.

Symptoms of skin cancer

Both basal cell and squamous cell cancers can appear in a variety of forms. They are usually painless and grow slowly. They can show up anywhere on your body but are most likely to appear on exposed skin, especially on your face or neck.

Symptoms of basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell cancers may:

  • be smooth and pearly
  • look waxy
  • appear as a firm, red lump
  • bleed sometimes
  • develop a crust or scab
  • begin to heal but never completely heal
  • be itchy
  • look like a flat, red spot that is scaly and crusty
  • develop into a painless ulcer.

Symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell cancers usually develop in areas that have been damaged by sun exposure. They are mainly found on the face, neck, bald scalps, arms, backs of hands and lower legs.
Squamous cell cancers may:
  • look scaly
  • have a hard, crusty cap
  • make the skin raised in the area of the cancer
  • feel tender to touch
  • bleed sometimes.

Changes in your skin

If you notice anything unusual on your skin that doesn't go away in a month, show it to your doctor. It might help to take a photograph of anything unusual so you can check for any changes. Remember that there are many other skin conditions that are not cancer, especially in older people.

*Information provided by Macmillan cancer support

At The Christie, the head and neck and skin team in clinical oncology treat skin cancers.

Last updated: March 2023