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Find out about the different types of non melanoma skin cancer.

Types of non melanoma skin cancer

Non melanoma skin cancer includes 2 main types:

  • basal cell skin cancer (BCC)
  • squamous cell skin cancer (SCC)

They're named after the types of skin cells where the cancer develops. It's possible for a non melanoma skin cancer to be a mixture of both these types.

Non melanoma skin cancer is different from melanoma. Melanoma is the type of skin cancer that most often develops from a mole.

Basal cell skin cancer

BCC is the most common type of skin cancer. About 75 out of every 100 cases (75%) of non melanoma skin cancers are BCCs. They develop from basal cells and these are found in the deepest layer of the epidermis and around the hair follicle.

They develop mostly in areas of skin exposed to the sun including parts of the face such as the nose, forehead and cheeks. Also, on your back or lower legs.

It is most often diagnosed in people who are middle or old age.

Your doctor might also call your basal cell carcinoma  a rodent ulcer.

There's a number of different subtypes, each can look and behave differently. These include:

  • nodular
  • superficial
  • morphoeic
  • pigmented

About a half of BCCs are the nodular type.

It's very rare for basal cell skin cancer to spread to another part of the body to form a secondary cancer. It's possible to have more than one basal cell cancer at any one time and having had one does increase your risk of getting another.

Squamous cell skin cancer

SCC is generally faster growing than basal cell cancers. About 20 out of every 100 cases (20%) of skin cancers are SCC. They begin in cells called keratinocytes, found in the epidermis layer of the skin.

Most SCCs develop in areas that have been exposed to the sun. These areas include parts of the head, neck, and on the back of your hands and forearms. They can also develop in scars, areas of skin that have been burnt in the past, or that have been ulcerated for a long time.

SCCs don't often spread. If they do, it's most often to the deeper layers of the skin. They can spread to nearby lymph nodes and other organs causing secondary cancers, but this is unusual.

Rarer types of non melanoma skin cancer

There are other less common types of skin cancer. These make up only about 1 out of every 100 (1%) skin cancers diagnosed in the UK. They are:

  • Merkel cell carcinoma
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma
  • T cell lymphoma of the skin

These are all treated differently from basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers.  

Merkel cell carcinoma is very rare. Treatment is with surgery or radiotherapy, or both. This usually works well, but sometimes the cancer can come back in the same place. And sometimes it spreads to nearby lymph nodes. 

Kaposi’s sarcoma is a rare condition. It's often associated with HIV but also occurs in people who don't have HIV. It's a cancer that starts in the cells that form the lining of blood vessels in the skin. Treatment is surgery or radiotherapy, and sometimes chemotherapy.

T cell lymphoma of the skin can also be called primary cutaneous lymphoma.

Bowen's disease

Bowen’s disease is a very early form of non melanoma skin cancer. It can appear anywhere on the skin and usually looks like a red patch that might be itchy. It is most commonly found on the lower leg, particularly in older women.

It can also develop on moist membranes of the body. For example, it can appear as a white patch in the mouth or a red patch in the genital area.

If not treated Bowen's disease might develop into squamous cell skin cancer.

Last reviewed: 
09 Sep 2014
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Blackwell, 2015

  • Cancer. Principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015. pp1314-1336   

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