Written by: Deen Kurrimbux

Non-melanoma skin cancer is part of a group of skin cancers that slowly develop in the upper layers of the skin. Skin cancer in general is one of the most common cancers in the world. They are named after the type of skin cell from which they develop. There are two most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma which begins in the bottom layer of the epidermis and squamous cell carcinoma which begins in the upper layer of the epidermis. They account for approximately 75% and 20% of skin cancers respectively. Non-melanoma skin cancer is mainly caused by overexposure to ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet (UV) light is part of natural sunlight but is also constituent in artificial light found in sunlamps and tanning salons. In addition, other factors will determine the increased likelihood of developing non-melanoma skin cancer, most notably if there is a family history of skin cancer, if the skin is pale and if the sufferer has a large number of freckles and moles. Recurring sunburn will increase susceptibility to non-melanoma skin cancer, also.

Diagnosis is by biopsy performed by a dermatological specialist after a precursory inspection by a local GP. Recurrence of non-melanoma skin cancer is more likely if the person has previously had it and in some cases especially if the previous bout was severe and widespread.

Surgery is the main treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer. This involves removing the cancerous tumour and some of the surrounding skin. Other treatments for non-melanoma skin cancer include cryotherapy – which uses cold treatment to destroy the cancer. It is sometimes used for non-melanoma skin cancers in their early stages. Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the cancer, and this causes the area to scab over; creams – in particular imiquimod cream which encourages the immune system to attack the cancerous cells; radiotherapy – which involves using low doses of radiation to destroy the cancer and chemotherapy – which involves using medicines to kill cancerous cells. In the case of non-melanoma skin cancer, chemotherapy is only recommended when the tumour is contained within the top layer of the skin. Treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer is completely successful in approximately 90% of cases.

Non-melanoma skin cancer isn’t always preventable but helping to reduce exposure to UV light will reduce likelihood of it developing. Sunscreen and adequate clothing on bright, sunny days and limiting exposure to the sun will all help to protect oneself. Sunbeds and sunlamps should also be avoided. Self-checking of the skin, particularly after known or inadvertent bouts of sun tanning, is advised.


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