How Deadly Is Skin Cancer?

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Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. If detected early, survival rates for skin cancer are good. However, some types of skin cancer are more aggressive than others.

Data to determine survival rates comes from the SEER database, which is maintained by the National Cancer Institute. In the SEER database, cancers are grouped together as localized, regional, or distant:

  • Localized means the cancer has not spread from the skin where it began.
  • Regional means the cancer has spread from the skin where it began to nearby tissues or lymph nodes.
  • Distant means the cancer has spread from the skin where it began to distant areas of the body like the liver, lungs, or other parts of the skin.
Doctor examining woman with melanoma

Peter Dazeley / The Image Bank / Getty Images

How Common Is Skin Cancer?

It is estimated that one in five Americans will get skin cancer at some point in their life.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most frequently occurring of all cancers and is the most common skin cancer. More than 4 million cases are diagnosed every year in the United States.

Basal cells are one of the three types of cells found in the top layer of the skin. BCC typically occurs due to damage from sun exposure or from ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure from indoor tanning. This triggers abnormal and uncontrollable growth of the basal cells.

Although BCC is relatively slow-growing and doesn’t usually spread to surrounding areas, it can metastasize if left untreated.

How Often Does BCC Spread?

Metastasis is rare with BCC, occurring in between 0.0028 and 0.55% of all cases. When it does occur, the lymph nodes, lungs, and bone are the most common sites of metastasis.

If BCC remains localized, there is a five-year survival rate of 100%. If BCC metastasizes, the outcomes are generally poor with median survival times ranging from eight months to 3.5 years.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common form of skin cancer. Squamous cells are found near the surface of the skin. SCC occurs when damage to DNA occurs through exposure to UV radiation and triggers abnormal, fast growth of squamous cells. This can occur due to heavy exposure to the sun.

SCCs can present as:

  • Open sores
  • Rough skin
  • Thickened or wart-like skin
  • Scaly red patches of skin

Affected skin most commonly occurs in areas of the body that have been exposed to the sun.

Although SCC is relatively slow-growing, it is slightly more likely to metastasize than BCC.

How Often Does SCC Spread?

Studies suggest that around 1.4% of people with SCC will experience metastasis.

As with BCC, the five-year survival rate is high—hovering around 99%—in the absence of metastasis. With metastasis, the three-year survival is roughly 29% in women and 46% in men.

Melanoma

Melanoma is a cancer that begins in skin cells called melanocytes, which give skin color. Melanoma may take the appearance of a mole, even in parts of the skin not exposed to the sun.

Melanoma is a serious form of cancer and is characterized by its aggressiveness.

One way of identifying melanoma is through the "ugly duckling" sign. This technique for identifying warning signs of melanoma works on the basis that most "normal" moles on the body are similar to one another in appearance, but melanomas by comparison will stand out like an ugly duckling. Compared to surrounding moles, ugly duckling lesions could be lighter, darker, smaller, or larger compared to others.

Melanoma is less common than SCC and BCC, but it is more dangerous because it can spread rapidly to other organs if not treated early.

Risk factors for melanoma include:

  • Excessive or unprotected UV exposure: This can be either from the sun or indoor tanning beds.
  • Multiple moles: Having large moles that are bigger than the eraser on a pencil, or having multiple moles on the body increases the risk of melanoma.
  • Weakened immune system: This makes you more susceptible to melanoma.
  • Fair skin: Melanoma is more common in those with light eyes, light or red hair, and people with fair skin.
  • A history of skin cancer: Your likelihood of melanoma increases if you have a history of skin cancer.
  • Genetics: One in 10 patients with melanoma has a family member who has also had melanoma.

When treated in the earliest stages, nearly 99% of people with melanoma will experience remission. That figure quickly drops when there is regional and distant spread.

Five-Year Relative Survival
Stage  Percentage of Cases by Stage  5-Year Relative Survival 
Localized  83% 99.0%
Regional 9% 66.2%
Distant  4%  27.3%

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer. About 2,000 cases of MCC are diagnosed in the United States each year.

MCC tumors can appear on areas of the skin exposed to the sun, but not in all instances. They can appear as pimple-like lumps and can be skin-colored, purple, red, or bluish red. Their rapid growth is often what draws attention to them.

Risk factors for MCC include:

  • A history of unprotected UV exposure, either from the sun or indoor tanning
  • Weakened immune system
  • Skin cancer history
  • Being over 50 years old
  • Having fair skin (although MCC can affect anyone)
  • Being male (men are more likely than women to get MCC)

How Often Does MCC Spread?

Around one-third to one-half of people with MCC will experience metastasis, most commonly to the brain, lungs, liver, or bones.

Treatment options for MCC vary based on the stage of the disease and how healthy a patient is overall. Treatment options include:

  • Surgical removal of the tumor
  • Radiation
  • Immunotherapy
  • Chemotherapy

A Word From Verywell

A diagnosis of skin cancer can be overwhelming. Survival statistics are based on everyone who has a disease—regardless of their age, overall health, or other factors that might positively or negatively influence survival. Early diagnosis and preventative measures like practicing sun safety can improve outcomes and odds of survival.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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