Skin Cancer Types

There are three basic families of skin cancers seen regularly in Australia.  There are a number of other rare skin cancers which will not be covered in this discussion.

All of the three types commonly seen come from the very top layer of the skin.  This layer makes up approximately the top ten percent of the skin depth.

The most common skin cancer is the Basal Cell Cancer. This cancer starts in the cells which make up the basement, or bottom layer (basal layer) of the epidermis.  Also known as BCC’s, these cancers have a reputation of being relatively low grade cancers.  Don’t be fooled, because if not treated properly they will keep on spreading and certainly can kill you.  They are very often difficult to see, sometimes looking like a faint scar, or just a vague collection of blood vessels.  A small number of people die each year in Australia from their BCC’s.  If BCC’s are diagnosed early in their development, they can usually be removed with surgery which is minimally invasive, and which leaves a minimal scar.  If they are not treated properly, or if the diagnosis is not made early, the surgery needs to be more invasive, and more extensive. BCC’s are often seen in young people – regularly in fair skinned people in their twenties and thirties. They get more common as people age.

The next most common skin cancer is the Squamous Cell Cancer.  This cancer starts in the cells which extend from just above the basement layer of cells (where the BCC’s start) to the surface of the skin.  Squamous Cell Cancers often look like skin coloured, or red lumps within the skin, but very often the lumps are disguised among other lumps.  They are sometimes tender.  Also known as SCC’s, these cancers are usually more aggressive than BCC’s, and need to be treated appropriately. They are sometimes fast growing, but will often be lesions that are hardly noticed.  These cancers kill between 500 and 600 Australians each year.  They readily spread to lymph nodes, and other part of the body.

The third type of skin cancer is the Melanoma.  This is a cancer of pigment cells.  Even though it only makes up five percent of all the skin cancers seen in Australia, it kills about 75 percent of all those people who die from skin cancer in Australia.  It has a reputation of being the most common cancer in the age range 15 years to 30 years, but actually gets more common as we age.  The most likely person to develop a melanoma is a man over the age of 65 years.  Melanomas are often very difficult cancers to diagnose.  Only 20 to 30 percent look like the photographs of melanoma in text books or on the web.  Many just look like a mole, or sometimes like an age spot, and sometimes like a freckle.  Some have no pigment at all, and are just a patch of skin which looks slightly red.  Early diagnosis is critical, as the sooner these cancers are diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome.