Is Skin Cancer Deadly? Fatality Rates and Signs to Look Out For

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. When detected early, cancer has about a 99% survival rate. In most cases, skin cancer is not deadly and can be treatable.

Examine your skin monthly or every few months for abnormalities. Also, watch for changes in moles, such as in shape, size, or color, or if they begin to itch or bleed.

This article details the signs of skin cancer, its types, risks, survival rate, and complications. You can also learn about prevention and diagnosis.

What is skin cancer?

person applying lotion
Guille Faingold/Stocksy United

Skin cancer results from DNA damage, usually from extensive UV exposure. Damage to your DNA can trigger abnormal cell growth, potentially leading to the formation of malignant tumors.

The main cause of skin cancer is UV rays from the sun.

Visit our hub to learn more about skin cancer.

Types of skin cancer

Skin cancer has variants and can be classified as either melanoma or nonmelanoma. The most common skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

The type of skin cancer depends on where the cancer cells begin to grow in the skin layers.

Skin cancer types include:

What are the fatality rates of skin cancer?

The fatality rates of skin cancer are relatively low, particularly if the cancer is caught early. The fatality rate may also vary depending on the type of skin cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most frequently occurring skin cancer. If diagnosed in its early stages and the cancer has not spread, BCC has a 5-year relative survival rate of 100%.

BBC may result from UV radiation exposure during indoor tanning or sun exposure. BCC usually grows slowly, and it does not spread to the surrounding areas.

However, the National Cancer Registry does not require reporting nonmelanoma skin cancer in the national cancer registry, so the rates may be much higher.

Read more about basal cell carcinoma.

Squamous cell carcinoma

The 5-year survival rate of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is slightly below 95%. SCC is the second most common skin cancer, resulting from chronic long-term exposure to UV rays.

Bowen’s disease is a type of SCC that is superficial or “in situ”: It’s only in the upper layer of skin. Bowen’s disease is typically a result of UV exposure.

SCC grows slowly, but it’s slightly more likely to metastasize than basal cell carcinoma.

Read more about squamous cell carcinoma.

Melanoma

The 5-year survival rate of melanoma may vary from 10–97%, depending on the stage. The combined survival rate of melanoma in its stages is 93%. Melanoma begins in melanocytes.

Melanocytes are the skin cells that give color to your skin. Melanoma may appear in parts of your skin not exposed to the sun.

Visit our hub to learn more about melanoma.

Fatality rates

Below are the fatality rates according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). However, the table does not take into account whether the melanoma spreads after diagnosis or if it returns. Also not included are age, health status, and response to treatment.

Stage of skin cancerLocalizedRegionalDistantCombined
Definition The cancer has not spread beyond its first location.The cancer has spread to nearby areas, for example, lymph nodes.The cancer has spread to distant areas, such as the lungs or liver.This statistic includes all the stages combined.
5-year relative survival rate99%68%30%93%

What are the signs of skin cancer?

Any changes in the skin may be a sign of skin cancer, including a sore that does not heal properly, new growth on the skin, or a mole that changes shape.

Identifying melanoma

To recognize the signs of melanoma, follow the ABCDE rule:

Asymmetrical: Does the spot or mole have an irregular shape, or do both halves of a mole look the same?
Border: Does the spot or mole have an irregular or jagged border?
Color: Is the spot or mole uneven in color?
Diameter: Has the mole grown bigger than a pea?
Evolving: Has the spot or mole changed during the past months or weeks?

The signs of skin cancer and what to look for.

When to contact a doctor

Talk with a doctor if you see changes in spots or growths on the skin or the development of new ones.

The doctor will examine the area and may perform a biopsy, which is the removal of skin for lab testing.

If there is a skin cancer diagnosis, the doctor will evaluate its progression and recommend treatment.

What causes skin cancer?

The main cause of skin cancer is UV rays. UV rays come from the sun but also from tanning beds.

Other causes of skin cancer may include:

  • genetic history
  • having multiple atypical nevi or moles
  • having a weak immune system

Prolonged exposure to UV rays may increase the risk of developing skin cancer throughout the years.

How is skin cancer diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine your skin and may perform a skin biopsy. A pathologist will examine your sample for cancer cells and may remove the lesion once you have a diagnosis.

Depending on the biopsy result and the physical exam, your doctor may also suggest an imaging test, such as an MRI or a PET scan. This will assess whether cancer has spread to other areas, such as the lymph nodes, muscles, or bones.

How can you check your skin for signs of skin cancer?

You should check your skin monthly for changes or new growths. Contact a doctor if you have concerns.

How can you prevent skin cancer?

To prevent skin cancer, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends the following:

  • avoid UV tanning beds
  • use UV-blocking sunglasses
  • cover up with clothing, such as a broad-brimmed hat
  • seek shade during the hottest hours of the day
  • apply sunscreen before going outside
  • keep newborns out of the sun
  • try to get a professional examination at least once a year
  • examine your skin head-to-toe once a month

What are the complications of skin cancer?

Skin cancer complications may include:

  • Local invasion: The cancer is deeper than initially thought or clinically seen.
  • Metastasis: Cancer has spread to muscle, lymph nodes, nerves, other organs, or other body parts.
  • Recurrence: Cancer returns after treatment.

If you’ve had skin cancer, you have a higher chance of developing cancer in another area on the location.

Summary

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. In most cases, it’s treatable. If caught early, the survival rate is around 99%.

To prevent skin cancer, avoid UV exposure when possible. Consider using UV tanning beds and sunscreen.

Also, check your skin for any changes in spots or moles. Scheduling an exam with a dermatologist once a year could be beneficial.

If doctors suspect skin cancer, they may perform a skin biopsy. If you have skin cancer, your doctor may test to assess the stage and recommend treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 21
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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