Types of Skin Cancer Overview

The latest statistics on skin cancer are very alarming.  During the past 31 years, people have contracted skin cancer more times than all other types of cancer combined.  Additionally, there are more new cases of skin cancer being diagnosed each year as compared to diagnoses of breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancers combined. One of the main reasons for this increase in cases of skin cancer in recent history is because there are many different types of skin cancer.1

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that occurs the most frequently.  Fortunately, it does not kill patients who contract it often, but because it usually causes noticeable damage and disfigurement, it is still classified as a malignant form of skin cancer. According to recent statistics, 30% of Caucasians will contract a basal cell skin cancer during their lives.2

In 80% of all basal-cell carcinoma cases, basal-cell cancers are found on the heads and necks of patients. Unfortunately, the number of cases of basal cell carcinomas seem to be on the rise in the last few years.

In two-thirds of basal-cell carcinoma cases, they occur on areas of the body that have received too much sun exposure.3 In the other one-third of cases, they occur in areas that haven’t received as much sunlight, which indicates that people who are genetically susceptible to basal cell cancer can also receive basal cell carcinomas.

Basal cell carcinomas can present itself in many different forms:

  • A red patch similar to eczema
  • A thickening of the skin or scar tissue
  • A shiny, pearly nodule

Only a biopsy can confirm whether you have basal cell carcinoma or not.  This is where your doctor will take a skin sample from around the nodule or in or near the red patch. This skin sample is then analyzed by a pathologist to see if cancer cells are present or not.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is another type of skin cancer that occurs frequently in people.4 It occurs when there is a rapid increase in the number of malignant cells in epithelium, one of the four main tissue types in a person’s body. Epithelium covers many internal and external surfaces of the body, and it can also be modified to form glandular structures.5 This means there are many types of squamous cell cancers such as lung, throat, etc. However, the most common and the one discussed here is squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.

Squamous cell carcinoma often occurs on areas that receive too much sun exposure, including on the backs of one’s hands, the lip, or the scalp.  One main difference between squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma is that squamous cell carcinoma is more likely to spread from one organ to another organ, also known as “metastasis.”7


The most deadly form of skin cancer is melanoma.  Every 62 minutes, a person dies from melanoma – that’s nearly 24 people a day, over 700 people a month, over 8,000 people a year. This equates to one out of every 55 people being diagnosed with melanoma at some point during their lives.  Melanoma is now the most common form of cancer for young adults between the ages of 25 to 29 years old and the second-most common form of cancer for all young people between the ages of 15 to 29 years old.8

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that does not occur as often as other kinds of skin cancer (only about 5% of all skin cancer cases5), but when it does occur, it usually leads to the most serious consequences (over 75% of all deaths caused by skin cancer5), especially the longer that it goes undetected and untreated.9

Melanoma can affect only your skin or it can spread to your bones and organs.  It can occur due to too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, causing your normal skin cells to become abnormal.  These abnormal cells continue to grow rapidly and spread throughout your body, attacking the tissues they encounter.

The usual sign for melanoma is a change in a skin growth, mole, or birthmark.  They are usually defined by a flat black or brown mole that has uneven edges, leading to an asymmetrical or irregular shape in appearance.  Melanomas are often ¼ inch or larger in appearance on your skin.  Melanomas can be found anywhere on your body, though they are often found on men’s chests and upper backs and women’s legs.10

Again, only a skin biopsy can definitively determine whether you have melanoma or not.

Neuroendocrine (Merkel Cell Carcinoma)

Neuroendocrine (also known as Merkel Cell Carcinoma) is a rare type of skin cancer that often appears as a bluish-red or flesh-colored nodule (tumor).11 It is often found on a person’s face, head, or neck, though they can occur anywhere on the body. Neuroendocrine usually develops in older people, especially in people who receive too much sun exposure or who suffer from a weakened immune system.12

Neuroendocrine will usually spread quickly to other parts of the body.  Treatment for this type of skin cancer will largely depend upon whether neuroendocrine has spread beyond the skin or not.

If you see a mole, freckle, or bump that changes in color, size, or shape or that bleeds easily after a minor bump or bruise, it’s important to see your doctor right away.13 He or she will conduct a skin biopsy to remove the tumor and a sample of the skin surrounding the tumor.  This is sent to a pathologist, who will look for the presence of cancer cells to determine if you have neuroendocrine or not.

Early Detection of Skin Cancer Is Key to Fewer Complications and Your Survival

Continuous examination of your skin is vital to detecting skin cancer as early as possible.  This will increase your chances of having fewer consequences from skin cancer, including the possibility of death, which occurs often in melanoma cases and also in neuroendocrine cases.  By being vigilant in self-examining your skin for any unusual changes in markings, moles, and lesions, you can alert your doctor right away.  Your doctor will definitively determine if you have skin cancer and what course of treatment to take in order to lessen any complications and to increase your chances of survival.


1 Basal-cell carcinoma (2011, August). From Mayo Clinic: www.mayoclinic.com/health/basal-cell-carcinoma/DS00925

2 Ibid

3 Ibid

4 Squamous-cell carcinoma (2011, August) From Mayo Clinic:: www.mayoclinic.com/health/squamous-cell-carcinoma/DS00924

5 Epithelium. (2010, November). From MedlinePlus: www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002363.htm

6 Squamous-cell carcinoma. op. cit.

7 Metastasis. (2011). From National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/metastatic

8 Melanoma. (2011) From the National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/melanoma

9 Ibid

10 What You Need to Know About Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers (2011). From National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/skin/page1

11 Merkel cell carcinoma – MayoClinic.com. (2010, September 6). From The Mayo Clinic: www.mayoclinic.com/health/merkel-cell-carcinoma/DS00802

12 Merkel cell carcinoma: Symptoms – MayoClinic.com. (2010, September 11). From The Mayo Clinic: www.mayoclinic.com/health/merkel-cell-carcinoma/DS00802/DSECTION=symptoms

13 Merkel cell carcinoma: Tests and diagnosis – MayoClinic.com. (2010, September 11). From The Mayo Clinic: www.mayoclinic.com/health/merkel-cell-carcinoma/DS00802/DSECTION=tests-and-diagnosis