What is non-melanoma skin cancer?
Non-melanoma skin cancers, now called keratinocyte cancers, are the most common cancers in Australia, however most are not life-threatening.
There are two main types: basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).
BCC accounts for about 70% of non-melanoma skin cancers. It begins in the lower layer of the epidermis (top, outer layer of the skin). It can appear anywhere on the body but most commonly develops on parts of the body that receive high or intermittent sun exposure (head, face, neck, shoulders and back).
SCC accounts for about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers. It begins in the upper layer of the epidermis and usually appears where the skin has had most exposure to the sun (head, neck, hands, forearms and lower legs). SCC generally grows quickly over weeks or months.
A third group of lesions called keratinocyte dysplasias includes solar keratosis, Bowenoid keratosis and squamous cell carcinoma in-situ (Bowen's disease). These are not invasive cancers, however may require treatment as some may develop into non-melanoma skin cancers.
It is estimated that more than 1,500 people were diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer in 2023. The average age at diagnosis is 76 years old.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) signs and symptoms
BCC often has no symptoms and tends to grow slowly without spreading to other parts of the body.
Symptoms of BCC can include:
a pearly lump
a scaly, dry area that is shiny and pale or bright pink in colour.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) signs and symptoms
Symptoms of SCC may include:
thickened red, scaly spot
rapidly growing lump
looks like a sore that has not healed
may be tender to touch.
Causes of non-melanoma skin cancer
Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged, for example, by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Between 95% and 99% of skin cancers in Australia are caused by exposure to the sun. The risk of skin cancer is increased for people who have:
increased numbers of unusual moles (dysplastic naevi)
fair skin, a tendency to burn rather than tan, freckles, light eye colour, light or red hair colour
had a previous skin cancer.
Diagnosis of non-melanoma skin cancer
If you notice any significant changes to your skin, your doctor may examine you. Diagnosis is by biopsy (removal of a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope).
After a diagnosis of non-melanoma skin cancer
After being diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer, you may feel shocked, upset, anxious or confused. These are normal responses. A diagnosis of non-melanoma skin cancer affects each person differently. For most it will be a difficult time, however some people manage to continue with their normal daily activities.
You may find it helpful to talk about your treatment options with your doctors, family and friends. Ask questions and seek as much information as you feel you need. It is up to you as to how involved you want to be in making decisions about your treatment.
Find out more about best non-melanoma (keratinocyte) cancer care:
Treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer
The type of treatment depends on the type and size of the cancer and where it is located.
Usually a biopsy is sufficient to determine the stage of a non-melanoma skin cancer. In cases of squamous cell carcinoma, lymph nodes may be examined to see if the cancer has spread. The staging system used is the TNM system, which describes the stage of the cancer from stage I to stage IV.
Sometimes, all the cancer is removed with the biopsy and in this case it will be the only treatment received.
Surgery is the most common treatment. Non-melanoma skin cancers are almost always removed (usually under a local anaesthetic). In more advanced skin cancers, some of the surrounding tissue may also be removed to make sure that all of the cancerous cells have been taken.
Most non-melanoma cancer can be treated with chemotherapy that is applied to the skin as an ointment or cream. This type of treatment is for skin cancers that affect the top layer of skin.
Radiation therapy (radiotherapy)
Radiation therapy (radiotherapy) is generally used to treat skin cancers in areas near the eyes or on the nose or forehead, which are difficult to treat with surgery. This treatment uses x-rays to kill cancer cells.
Non-melanoma cancer can also be removed by cryotherapy (using liquid nitrogen to rapidly freeze the cancer off), curettage (scraping) or cautery (burning).
Treatment TeamDepending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different health professionals, such as:
- GP (General Practitioner) - looks after your general health and works with your specialists to coordinate treatment.
- Dermatologist- specialises in preventing, diagnosing and treating skin diseases.
- Radiation oncologist - prescribes and coordinates radiation therapy treatment.
- Surgeon- Surgeon which can be a general surgeon, a surgical oncologist to manage complex skin cancers or a plastic surgeon trained in complex constructive techniques, including surgery if the cancer has spread..
Screening for non-melanoma skin cancer
There is no organised screening program for non-melanoma skin cancers. People should be aware of their skin and see a doctor if there are any significant changes, such as changes to moles, freckles and spots on the skin.
Download Cancer Council's skin cancer identification poster to help identify potential skin cancers:
Preventing non-melanoma skin cancer
Avoid sunburn by minimising sun exposure when the SunSmart UV Index is 3 or above and especially in the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense. Seek shade, wear a hat that covers the head, neck and ears, wear sun protective clothing and close-fitting sunglasses, and wear an SPF30 or higher sunscreen. Avoid using solariums (tanning salons).
Work outdoors? Use UV protection every day - Download PDF:
Prognosis for non-melanoma skin cancer
An individual's prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis. The majority of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are successfully treated.
- Understanding Skin Cancer, Cancer Council Australia, © 2020. Last medical review of source booklet: January 2020.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer data in Australia [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2023 [cited 2023 Sept 04]. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/cancer/cancer-data-in-australia
This information was last updated September 2023.
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