Types of Skin Cancer (and How Deadly They Are)

Get ready to protect your skin because the most common cancer in the United States is skin cancer, according to the CDC*.

Medical providers typically divide skin cancer into two primary categories: malignant melanoma (often just called melanoma) and non-melanoma (sometimes spelled nonmelanoma). However, there are also plenty of sub-categories of skin cancer worth knowing about, including the following…

*Anyone who suspects they have any form of cancer should seek medical attention right away.

10. Melanoma

National Cancer Institute (NCI), www.cancer.gov

Melanoma is the third-most common type of skin cancer and the one that tends to worry experts the most.

Our bodies naturally produce a substance called melanin, which gives our skin (and other parts of the body) its pigmentation. The cells that create this pigment are melanocytes. When melanocytes become malignant, or cancerous, melanoma develops.

Melanoma’s lethality is due to the fact that it can rapidly spread from the skin to other parts of the body, a process known as metastasis. When metastasis occurs, odds of survival drop.

Fortunately, the most common type of skin cancer has a much better prognosis…

9. Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

Unchanged from © DermNet New Zealand (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ)

Basal cell cancer (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer. Experts estimate about 4.3 million people receive a BCC diagnosis in the United States every year. Fortunately, the survival rate of BCC is high, especially if it is caught early.

How deadly is basal cell cancer?

Basal cells can help create new skin cells, and they are found at the bottom of the outermost layer of skin, known as the epidermis. But in cancerous cases, basal cell carcinoma occurs when these cells become malignant.

The following common skin cancer is a bit more lethal…

8. Squamous Cell Cancer (SCC)

Kelly Nelson, National Cancer Institute (NCI); www.cancer.gov

The second most common skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), cancer that impacts our epidermis cells: squamous cells. According to experts, over 1 million people in the United States receive an SCC diagnosis annually.

Squamous cells become cancerous for a variety of reasons, including overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Because squamous cells make up our outermost layer of skin, they are at higher risk for UV overexposure, which is why it’s so important to use sunscreen anytime you go outside.

How deadly is squamous cell carcinoma?

If caught early, SCC has a high survival rate. It’s important to keep in mind that SCC is far more common than other skin cancers, like melanoma, which is why the survival rate of SCC is higher than melanoma.

The following skin cancer is far less common yet far more aggressive than SCC…

7. Merkel Cell Cancer

Klaus D. Peter, Gummersbach, Germany (CC BY 3.0 DE)

Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare form of skin cancer. Also known as neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin, Merkel cell carcinoma occurs when Merkel cells become cancerous. Merkel cells (Merkel-Ranvier cells, tactile epithelial cells) are found in our skin and help us feel light touches and other sensations.

How deadly is Merkel cell carcinoma?

According to SEER, survival rates for Merkel cell carcinoma five years after a diagnosis are as follows:

  • Average – 64%
  • Localized – 78%
  • Regional – 52%
  • Distant – 19%

Unlike Merkel cell cancer, the following has a much better prognosis…

6. Actinic Keratoses (AKs)

James Heilman, MD (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Actinic keratoses (AKs) aren’t actually a cancer, but rather precancerous growths that have the potential to develop into SCC.

Also known as solar keratosis, AKs are scaly and/or rough patches on your skin. Years of sun exposure can cause them to develop, which means they are far more common in older adults.

How often does AK become cancerous?

AKs themselves are not cancerous, although they can develop into SCC. It’s not often AKs become cancerous, either: according to Yale Medicine, only about 10 percent of AKs progress to SCC.

As we can see, AKs are quite common, unlike the following…

5. Cutaneous T-cell Lymphoma

Dermatology11/Shutterstock.com

Incredibly rare, cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL) is a condition that cannot be cured, although treatment is available.

T-lymphocytes, or T-cells, are a specialized form of white blood cells (WBC); WBCs (aka leukocytes and leucocytes) are part of our immune system. T-cells are key players in the immune response, and they are mostly found in our skin. When T-cells in the skin become malignant, CTCL is the result.

Is CTCL deadly?

With proper treatment, CTCL is typically non-lethal. That said, CTCL is non-curable; professionals can only treat the condition to help patients lead relatively normal lives.

Another rare form of skin cancer with a favorable prognosis is…

4. Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans (DFSP)

Unchanged from © DermNet New Zealand (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ)

Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP) is another rare form of skin cancer. It begins in the dermis, the middle layer of our skin.

Is DFSP deadly?

This slow-growing cancer doesn’t often metastasize, which means the odds of surviving it are good. In fact, the survival rate after 10 years is an incredible 99.1%.

Like DFSP, the following form of skin carcinoma is extremely rare. Unlike DFSP, though, it has a lower rate of survival…

3. Sebaceous Carcinoma

Unchanged from © DermNet New Zealand (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ)

Meibomian gland carcinoma, sebaceous gland carcinoma, and sebaceous gland adenocarcinoma are all names for sebaceous carcinoma (SC), a rare and highly aggressive skin cancer.

Sebaceous glands produce sebum, a type of lubricating oil. Found in our skin, these glands can become cancerous in rare cases. When SC occurs, it most often initially presents on the eyelid.

Is SC deadly?

Like any other form of cancer, the earlier someone catches SC, the better the survival odds are. How deadly this disease depends on the individual and the stage at which SC is detected. Mortality rates vary widely, although some experts place the five-year mortality rate for cases where the disease has metastasized around 50 to 67 percent.

SC isn’t the only skin cancer of the eye…

2. Ocular Cancer

Left – Jonathan Trobe, M.D. – University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center (CC BY 3.0) Right – Maliflower73/Shutterstock.com

Eye cancer, also called ocular cancer, is a rare form of melanoma that can develop in the eyes.

The two primary forms of this condition are conjunctival melanoma and uveal melanoma. Conjunctival melanoma occurs in the conjunctiva, the mucus membrane that lines the sides and inside of the eyelids. Uveal melanoma occurs in the uvea, the pigmented part of the eye.

How deadly is ocular melanoma?

According to SEER, prognosis (survival rate) for eye melanoma five years after a diagnosis is as follows:

  • Average – 82%
  • Localized – 85%
  • Regional – 71%
  • Distant – 13%

The following form of skin cancer is fortunately far more treatable…

1. Bowen’s Disease

Klaus D. Peter, Gummersbach, Germany (CC BY 3.0 DE)

Bowen’s disease is simply another name for squamous cell carcinoma in situ. Bowen’s disease is an early stage of SCC, the second-most common type of skin cancer. In some cases, Bowen’s disease will not even progress to SCC, although treating this condition as soon as possible ensures the best prognosis.

Is Bowen’s disease lethal?

Experts typically don’t consider Bowen’s disease to be dangerous, although it has the potential to be if left untreated. Experts estimate there is a 3 to 5 percent chance this condition can progress to invasive SCC, which has a lower rate of survival when it spreads to other parts of the body.

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