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Friday, 17 March, 2000, 17:06 GMT
Skin cancers

If all types of skin cancers are added together, they become some of the most common in the UK.

Cancer: the facts
However, the threat posed by the majority is tiny - although medical attention is still required.

But it is one type in particular, malignant melanoma, which accounts for a relatively small number of cases, and the vast majority of deaths from skin cancer.

Professor Rona Mackie, an expert in skin cancer who carries out research funded by the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "The most important type of skin cancer is malignant melanoma, although it's the least common.

"Malignant melanoma tends to spread much more rapidly through the bloodstream than the other two types of skin cancer.

"If an adult has a growing, changing, brown or black mark which cannot be covered by the blunt end of a pencil, this should be shown to the doctor without too much delay."

Many skin cancers are blamed on over-exposure to the sun, particularly among light-skinned people living in hotter countries.

Doctors advise people to cover up in sunny weather, and to avoid sunburn if at all possible.

Click here to listen to Professor Rona Mackie talking about skin cancer

There are three principal types of skin cancer, and different cancers can have different appearances.

The most common is "Basal cell carcinoma", affecting a type of cell within the top layer of skin.

It is a slow growing cancer, and does not often spread to other parts of the body.

The second type, involving another type of cell in the top layer, is called "squamous cell carcinoma", and again is not known for its aggression.

Melanoma is a different matter - it affects the cells which produce the skin's colouring, and can spread to affect the liver, lungs or brain.

Doctors warn patients to look out for changes in the appearance of moles, or new growths or sores which fail to heal.

They are rarely painful, although they can be scaly or itchy - so it is mistake to await pain before consulting a doctor.

Changes to look out for in moles include a change in shape, or increase in size, perhaps with the border of the mole or sore being ragged or irregular.

The colouring can vary, and doctors recommend that a growing mole which becomes larger than the flat end of a pencil should be viewed with concern.

To find out if it is skin cancer, and, if so, what sort of skin cancer it is, a doctor will carry out a biopsy, removing all or part of the suspicious growth which is then analysed.

If cancer is confirmed, and particularly melanoma, then further tests will be done to see if the cancer has spread beyond the skin to other parts of the body.

This may involve taking x-rays and scans to look at the liver, brain and lungs.

There are wide variety of treatments used to tackle skin cancer, depending on the type, and how far if at all it has spread, or is likely to.

A common operation simply cuts out the affected area under local anaesthetic. Sometimes an electric current is passed through the wound to kill any stray cancer cells and stop bleeding.

Another method used on smaller cancers is cryosurgery, in which liquid nitrogen is applied to the tumour to freeze it and kill the cells, which simply shrivel and drop off once warmed up.

Heat from a laser is sometimes used to burn away the tumour.

Precisely targeted radiotherapy is occasionally pointed at the cancer, as is chemotherapy in the form of a cream.

In the case of melanoma, if there is a suspicion that the cancer may have spread beyond the skin layer, a course of chemotherapy is ordered to attempt to eradicate skin cancer cells in other parts of the body.

Although scientists have found that some people may be more vulnerable to skin cancers, the main cause of skin cancer is over-exposure to strong sunlight, and those with lighter skin are far more vulnerable.

It is thought the UV radiation in sunlight causes subtle cell damage which can lead to cancerous changes.

Rates of skin cancer of all sorts are extremely low among dark-skinned people.

Men are more likely to develop cancers on their neck, shoulders and back, whereas in women the cancer is more likely to appear on the lower part of the leg.

Professor Mackie said: "It's important to know what your risk factors are - for example if you come from a family with a history of skin cancer, you need to be more careful."

If someone has a large number of moles, then they are more likely to develop skin cancer.

Doctors warn people not to spend too long in the sun, and to cover up wherever possible.

Use of suntan lotion has not yet been proven to protect the skin against melanoma.

To learn more about survival rates for skin cancers compared to other cancers, click here .
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04 Jul 99 | Health
Experts target skin cancer
01 Feb 99 | Health
Skin cancer gene breakthrough
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