Can you tell the difference between melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer?
Living in Australia, it’s likely we’re all familiar with the fact that skin cancer is a commonly diagnosed condition – affecting an estimated 2 in 3 people by the age of 70 years.*1 However, we may be less familiar with the different types of skin cancer and what makes melanoma different from non-melanoma skin cancers. So, let’s take a moment to understand a bit more about the basics of skin cancer.
The three types of skin cancer
Skin cancer occurs when abnormal skin cells start to grow in an uncontrolled way. There are three main skin cancer types, which are named based on the type of skin cell they start in.2
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the melanocyte skin cells – the cells that produce the pigment called melanin that gives skin its colour. While melanoma is less common that nonmelanoma skin cancers, it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body and so is considered a more serious form of skin cancer.2
The two main types of non-melanoma skin cancer – which is also called keratinocyte cancer – are basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Together, these two make up about 99% of all skin cancers.*1,2
As its name suggests, BCC starts in the basal skin cells. These block-like cells form the bottom layer of the outer part of our skin (called the epidermis). BCCs are typically slow growing over months or even years and are unlikely to spread to other parts of your body. While they can occur on any part of the body, they are more likely to develop on areas of skin that get more sun exposure such as the face, head, neck, arms, and legs.2
SCC is less common than BCC and starts in the squamous skin cells. Squamous cells are flat, tightly packed skin cells that form the thick top layer of epidermis. SCCs tend to grow quickly over weeks or months. Like BCC, SCC can form on any part of the body but tend to show up on areas that get the most sun exposure.2
What might skin cancers look like?
BCC may appear as a pearl-coloured lump or as a scaly, shiny, pale or pink area. SCC usually appears as a red, scaly, or crusty spot or lump that grows quickly. Both BCC and SCC can become red and inflamed, and may even bleed.2
It’s important to understand that BCC, SCC, and melanoma may not always look like the ‘typical’ description, so it’s crucial to get to know your own skin by doing regular skin checks.2 Key signs to look out for include any spots that have changed size, shape, colour, or texture, spots that look and feel different from other spots, and sores that itch, bleed, or don’t heal after a few weeks.2
If you notice any changes in your skin, or if you have any concerns about your skin or risk for developing skin cancer, talk to your doctor.
* Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Skin Cancer in Australia. July 2016.1
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- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Skin Cancer in Australia. July 2016. Available: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/cancer/skin-cancer-in-australia/summary [accessed October 2023].
- Cancer Council. Understanding Skin Cancer. December 2021. Available: https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/skin-cancer [accessed October 2023].