By Dr Bilal Shirazi | 28 Apr 2021

Everything you need to know about skin cancer

Despite being one of the most common cancers worldwide, many people do not understand the risk factors associated with skin cancer.


When we think about cancer, we often turn our attention to cancers like lung cancer and breast cancer. These cancers are the cause of millions of deaths each year. They are among the biggest causes of mortality in general, so the focus on these is understandable.

As a cancer that often has high survival rates, skin cancer often doesn't get much attention. It's easy to forget the risk of developing this condition when we're spending time outside during the summer.

Each May, cancer awareness and health organisations worldwide mark Skin Cancer Awareness Month. In Northern Hemisphere regions, the timing is apt, as we’re about to hit the summer months and spend increasing amounts of time outdoors. With the potential for there to still be restrictions in place relating to COVID-19 and mixing indoors, we might even spend longer outside than usual, as was probably the case in 2020, too.

Ahead of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, let’s look at everything you need to know about this condition.

Just how common is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers worldwide.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund, there are around one million cases of melanoma skin cancers diagnosed per year. In addition, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports that, in the United States alone, there are over five million cases of skin cancer diagnosed every year, the majority of which are non-melanoma cancers.

Discover the difference between melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers here.

Both above numbers are likely to be underestimates of the true scale of skin cancer’s prevalence.


Well, despite being so common, there is still a significant lack of awareness surrounding skin cancer. Many people do not notice changes or go and get checked out to see if they may have a problem. Many people might not even know what they should be looking for.

What are the main risk factors for skin cancer?

The primary risk factor for both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers is ultraviolet (UV) light, whether from the sun or artificial sources such as tanning beds. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that as many as 90% of skin cancers directly result from overexposure to the sun.

However, as with some other cancers and medical conditions, there are many other factors at play that you cannot necessarily control.

These include:

  • Family history. Skin cancer does not typically run in families in the same way as breast cancer, for example, might do. However, the UK NHS says you're 2 – 3 times above average to develop skin cancer if either of your parents did.
  • Having pale skin that doesn’t easily tan.
  • Having blonde or red hair or blue eyes.
  • Having a large number of moles or freckles.
  • Having been diagnosed with skin cancer before.

You’re also more at risk of developing skin cancer if you suffer from an immunosuppressing condition or are taking medication that suppresses your immune system. Older age is also a risk factor for skin cancer.

Cancer Research UK has more information on skin cancer risk factors here.

How can you reduce your risk of developing skin cancer?

Given most of us have at least some opportunities to control our exposure to UV light, skin cancers are typically highly preventable.

We previously covered how you can reduce your risk of developing skin cancer in our article looking at cancers in general for World Cancer Day 2020.

Steps to take include:

  • Avoiding tanning beds and salons.
  • Staying in the shade as much as you can when outdoors.
  • Cover up as much of your body as you can when in the sun – linen clothing looks great and will keep you cool, too.
  • Aim to limit exposure to UV light when it's at its strongest in the middle of the day.
  • Use a high SPF sun lotion on any skin regularly exposed to the sun, such as your face and hands.

Many people don’t realise just how much UV light reaches the planet’s surface, even on a cloudy day. With that in mind, it’s worth using sun lotion on exposed skin every time you leave the house to minimise your skin cancer risk as much as possible.

How is skin cancer diagnosed and treated?

Receiving a skin cancer diagnosis starts with you. Regardless of whether you're in a high-risk group, and even if you barely spend any time in the sun, be diligent about checking your skin for new and changing moles. If you need your partner, a friend, or a family member to take photographs of your skin – especially on your back – then don't be shy about asking!

If you are concerned about any such changes, you should contact your doctor. Your doctor may ask you to send in photographs you’ve taken yourself before attending an examination. When you visit your doctor, they will usually take additional pictures of the changing mole or relevant area of concern. Your doctor will then decide whether a referral to a specialist is necessary.

Upon referral to a specialist, the area of concern will be examined and typically observed over a period of months. A biopsy may take place to identify whether cancer is present.

If you are diagnosed with skin cancer, your treatment will depend on numerous factors. These include the area affected, its size, and whether cancer is isolated to the skin or has spread elsewhere.

Your treatment options may include:

  • Surgical removal of a mole and surrounding area of the skin under local anaesthetic.
  • Removal of a more extensive section of skin covered by plastic surgery or a skin graft.
  • Undergoing Mohs micrographic surgery (MMS). MMS is typically done if you're deemed at higher risk of cancer returning, or skin needs to be removed from delicate areas like around the eyes and nose.
  • Prescription of anti-cancer creams as an alternative to chemotherapy.

It is always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to skin cancer. Know what your moles look like and report any changes to your doctor immediately. Skin cancer recovery rates are over 90% when identified and treated early, and in many cases, treatment will be straightforward.

How you can get involved with Skin Cancer Awareness Month

Skin Cancer Awareness Month isn't centrally organised and coordinated by an agency like the World Health Organization (WHO), unlike many health awareness events. However, organisations involved in fundraising, raising awareness, or helping people receive treatment for skin cancer or other cancers will likely have events taking place throughout May.

To discover further information or events taking place where you live, simply search “skin cancer awareness month” in your usual search engine or visit nearby fundraising locations.