Understanding skin cancers

If you or your loved one has a skin cancer - Peter Mac is here to help.

The skin is the largest organ of the body. Its main jobs are to:

  • keep our body temperature more or less the same
  • protect the body from injury and infection
  • control fluid loss
  • get rid of some waste through sweating.

There are two main layers that make up the skin. They are the:

  • epidermis - the outer or topmost layer
  • dermis - beneath the epidermis.

Like all body tissues and organs, the skin is made up of tiny ‘building blocks’ called cells. The outer layer, the epidermis, contains three types of cells:

  • squamous cells – found at the top most layer of the epidermis. These shed as new ones form.
  • basal cells – at the lower part of the epidermis. These cells are always making new cells to replace the squamous cells that shed from the skin. Basal cells move up through the epidermis and eventually become squamous cells.
  • melanocyte cells – make the pigment that gives us our skin, hair and eye color. This pigment is called ‘melanin’. When in the sun, melanocytes produce extra melanin to protect all the skin layers from the harmful rays of the sun. This production of extra melanin, is what causes the skin to darken when exposed to the sun.

Skin cancer happens when any one of these cell(s) begins to grow abnormally and out of control. Skin cancers are named after the type of cell from where the abnormal cell growth started.

All different types and tones (colors) of skin can develop skin cancer. Usually, skin cancers develop as a result of too much time in the sun. These cancers usually develop in areas such as:

  • face
  • lips
  • ears
  • neck
  • chest
  • arms
  • legs.

Sometimes skin cancers grow in areas that hardly see daylight such as palms, beneath nails and sometimes the genital area.

Focusing on you

Placing you at the centre of our work, your specialist will work with you to find out what type of skin cancer you have.

There are three main types of skin cancers. Each is different from the other.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common and least dangerous type of skin cancer. It is usually found on the head, neck or upper body.

Some basal cell carcinoma signs:

  • a small, red lump or bump
  • can be pearly and shiny (waxy)
  • have blood vessels on the surface.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is less common than basal cell carcinoma and sometimes more dangerous. This cancer is usually found on the head, neck, hands and forearms.

Squamous cell carcinomas grow much more quickly, usually over weeks or months. This growth can sometimes spread to nearby lymph nodes (small cells that group together to help filter bacteria and germs). It is usually found on the head, neck or upper body.

Some squamous cell carcinoma signs:

  • red and scaly (peeling/flaking) spot
  • may bleed easily
  • tender to touch.


Melanoma develops from the melanocytes and this can happen anywhere on the body. If it is not treated, melanoma may spread to other parts of the body.

Some melanoma signs:

  • a new spot
  • a spot or mole that is changing or growing
  • a spot or mole that becomes itchy
  • a spot or mole that bleeds easily.

If you have noticed any changes in your skin, it is important to see your GP (General Practitioner). Not all skin lesions are cancerous, so your GP will refer you to a skin cancer specialist for further tests if necessary.

Your GP may do a biopsy before sending you to Peter Mac. In many instances, this biopsy will remove the affected skin (spot/mole) as well as a small area around it. This sample will be sent to a laboratory for testing and to confirm the type of skin cancer you may have.

Enhancing your care

We will design and work to a diagnosis and treatment plan that best responds to your condition and individual needs.

Your Peter Mac doctor will discuss and develop the best treatment plan for you. Treatments will depend on your diagnosis.

Skin cancer treatment will depend on:

  • the type of disease it is
  • whether it has spread and how far (its stage)
  • whether you have been treated before for skin cancer
  • your general health and wellbeing
  • your needs.

In the case of melanoma, your Peter Mac skin cancer expert, may check your lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread.

After effective treatment, patients will continue to see their doctor, either the GP or specialist cancer doctor, as required. These visits are used to monitor your health and may include tests such as:

  • imaging (scans and x-rays)
  • further biopsies.

Your specialist will discuss the best follow-up plan for you.


We know how hard cancer and treatment can be. Your lifestyle and that of your loved one's will be disrupted and changed. During this time, it is common to struggle with ongoing concerns about cancer and therapy. There are many expert groups available to support you through this time, including:


At Peter Mac, we focus on all aspects of your health and wellbeing. Our skin cancer experts will help support and guide you to the best information and managed care.

Our specialist nurses can refer you to our:


For more information about skin cancers cancers, their treatment and support for patients and families, download copies of the following resources: 


Your needs come first, so we offer expert care across a number of different Melanoma & Skin diseases including:

Non-melanoma skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma)
Cutaneous lymphoma
Merkel cell carcinoma
Skin sarcomas
Other skin cancers