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A guide to skin cancers

Lesley Dobson / 11 August 2017

Check your skin for moles regularly – it could save your life.

A dermatologist checks a patient's moles
A dermatologist checks a patient's moles. Photo posed by models.

Use the list below to jump to the information you are seeking.

Basal cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma

Malignant melanoma

Nodular malignant melanoma

How much do you know about skin cancer? It’s something we’d rather not think about, but knowing more about this condition can mean that we’re more likely to spot a problem before it becomes serious.

Skin cancers vary from the slow-growing, easy-to-treat variety, to those that grow more rapidly, travel quickly through our bodies and need to be spotted and treated fast. These are the skin cancers we need to be most aware of.

You may not have heard of some of these skin cancers, which is why it’s important to find out more about them, know what they look like, and how they affect our bodies.

 ‘Basal cell carcinomas are the most common skin cancers – more common than all the other skin cancers put together,’ explains Dr Howard Stevens, leading skin cancer specialist who has worked at The Royal Free Hospital in London, and is founder of the Skin Care Network. ‘We’re seeing an epidemic of these non-melanoma skin cancers at the moment. The research shows that the number of cases of this type of cancer is likely to double within the next 10-15 years.’

Would you be able to spot a skin cancer? 

Take a look at our brief guide to some of the most common types of skin cancer, including melanomas and non-melanoma skin cancer.

Basal cell carcinomas 

Basal cell carcinomas are often small, shiny and pink or white and slightly translucent. However, they can also have some brown or black colouring. As the lump increases in size, it may bleed, develop a crusty appearance, or look like an ulcer. This type of cancerous mole can nearly always be treated and cured, although it is best not to wait too long to have it treated.

If you have anything like this on your skin you should see your GP, and then see a dermatologist within 18 weeks.    

Squamous cell carcinoma

 Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common non-melanoma skin cancer in the UK. They tend to be rather red and inflamed at the base, and may have a crusty appearance at their surface.

If you think you may have this type of skin cancer see your GP. You should then have an appointment with a skin specialist, and are likely to have the carcinoma removed. It’s important not to leave it too long before having treatment, as this type of carcinoma can become more serious and prone to spread if they aren’t dealt with.

Malignant melanomas

Malignant melanomas are the ones that we’re all taught to watch out for, because they need to be treated quickly. There are a number of different types of malignant melanomas. Superficial spreading malignant melanomas make up about 70 percent of all the melanomas diagnosed in the UK. They tend to be found most often on people who have light-coloured skin and freckles, or people with lots of moles.

‘One way of checking whether that mole or mark on your skin might be a superficial spreading malignant melanoma, is to think ABCD,’ explains Dr Stevens. 

A stands for Asymmetry, which means that the mole is an unusual shape, and not symmetrical.

B stands for Border irregularities, which means that the edges of the mole are very irregular.

C stands for variations in Colour – you may have a mole that is different colours.

D stands for increasing Diameter – this means that the mole is growing.

If any of these apply to any of your moles, see your GP.

‘The peak age to find these moles is in your fifties or sixties.’ Dr Howard Stevens

‘The peak age to find these moles is in your fifties or sixties,’ explains Dr Stevens. ‘However, malignant melanoma is now probably the most common cancer found in women aged 20-30.’

Nodular malignant melanoma

‘Nodular malignant melanoma is the skin cancer that we’re finding most often in men in their 60s and 70s. These don’t fit the ABCD rule. They’re often round, they may be red or black, and they seem to be just a growing bump,’ explains Dr Stevens.

‘Nodular malignant melanoma is the skin cancer that we’re finding most often in men in their 60s and 70s. These don’t fit the ABCD rule.’ Dr Howard Stevens

‘They can look like insect bites that keep growing, but if you find something like this and they don’t get better after three or four weeks, they could be a Nodular melanoma and need to be further investigated. Patients and GPs tend not to see them as significant, and often they are just treated with cream. However, they can go from non-worrying to life-threatening, in just four to eight weeks, sometimes even less.’

‘While Superficial Spreading Malignant Melanomas may grow down through your skin at a rate of one tenth of a millimetre a month, Nodular Malignant Melanomas grow five times as quickly, so half a millimetre a month.’

If you have spent a lot of time in the sun over the years, and are in your 70s to 80s, look out for marks on your skin – on your face for instance – that looks like a single freckle. Or you may notice one particular freckle that has slowly grown over the years. Check with your doctor, as this chronic high sun-exposure over many years is likely to have caused damage to your skin.

Gardeners' skin cancer risk

‘Over-exposure to the sun over many years leads to the sort of problems we’re currently seeing in our clinics, with malignant melanomas now affecting one in 40 of us’, says Dr Stevens.

‘We can cure most melanomas, because we’re diagnosing a lot more of them, and at an earlier stage, but we’re still seeing a significant number of deep melanomas, especially in the older population.’

How to check your moles

The most important thing to remember is to check your skin and your moles regularly – at least once a month. If you have a mole that’s bothering you, check every couple of days.

Ask your other half, or someone else close to you to check your back and the back of your legs. And if the hair on your head isn’t thick enough to protect your skin there, ask them to check your head too. Then swap places and do the same for your mole-checking partner.

If you are concerned about a mole – even one that looks more like a freckle, but which has been changing in colour, shape or size or has started to bleed – see your GP.

If you are concerned about a mole – even one that looks more like a freckle, but which has been changing in colour, shape or size or has started to bleed – see your GP. They may say that it is nothing to worry about, but it’s important that you still keep doing regular visual checks. If you see a change, go back to your GP and ask to be referred to a cancer specialist/dermatologist.

‘If you have had a melanoma, your children have a 10-fold increased risk of having one too,’ explains Dr Stevens. ‘They should have regular check-ups to make sure that they don’t have any moles that are showing signs of being malignant.’

‘It’s important to remember that once you’ve had a melanoma, you have a 10% lifetime risk of having another one.’ Checking your skin and your moles regularly can mean that you stop skin cancer before it becomes difficult to treat.

Pass the sun safety message on

Make sure that your grown-up children and your grandchildren know how to stay safe in the sun.

  • Always wear sunscreen on exposed skin, and re-apply it throughout the day.
  • Wear a hat, long-sleeved shirt and trousers or long skirt to help protect your skin.
  • Use sunscreen that at least factor 15, and make sure to re-apply it regularly, on children and adults.
  • Stay out of the sun when it is at its hottest – usually between 12pm and 3 pm.
  • Wear sunglasses when you’re in strong sunlight, whatever your age.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to help protect your face, neck, ears, (and scalp if you have thinning hair).

How to protect your skin while sunbathing

Please note: the slideshow of images of skin cancers on this page is not exhaustive. Please contact your GP if you have any concerns about your skin.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.