Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancer develops in the cells of the skin and encompasses all skin cancers that are not melanoma skin cancer

Last modified: February 28, 2022

Quick facts about non-melanoma skin cancerQuick facts

  • Australia has the highest rates of skin cancers in the world, with non-melanoma skin cancer the most common cancer in Australia 
  • There are approximately 580,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed in Australia each year

Types of non-melanoma skin cancerTypes of non-melanoma skin cancer

The most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer are:

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

SCC makes up approximately 30% of all non-melanoma skin cancers. These cancers develop from squamous cells in the superficial layer of skin and commonly appear in areas of high sun exposure. They can grow quickly and may spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

The most common type of skin cancer, BCC develops from basal cells in the superficial layer of the skin and accounts for two-thirds of all non- melanoma skin cancers. They can appear anywhere on the body but most commonly develop in areas where the body has had reasonable levels of sun exposure. These cancers do not typically spread from the area where they first developed and while treatment is recommended, they are not usually life threatening.

There are rare types of skin cancers which account for 1% of non-melanoma skin cancers, including merkel cell carcinoma and some forms of lymphoma of the skin.

Signs and symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancerSigns and symptoms

It’s important to see your GP or healthcare professional if you notice any of the skin changes listed below. Discussing anything concerning with your doctor as soon as possible can help give you peace of mind and offer the best chance of successful treatment if you develop a non-melanoma skin cancer. 

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinomas can grow quickly over weeks or months.

Symptoms include:

  • A sore that doesn’t seem to heal

  • Tender or painful to touch

  • A lump that grows quickly

  • Thick, scaly red spot

  • Changes to sensation of skin around the lesion

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinomas can grow slowly and often display little or no symptoms.

Symptoms include:

  • Scaly patches of skin (pale and shiny or bright pink)

  • Flesh-coloured lump

Stages of non-melanoma skin cancerStages

Usually a biopsy and imaging will be performed to determine the stage of non-melanoma skin cancer, which will then be categorised using the TNM system. This helps doctors understand what your cancer might need in terms of treatment. The TNM stands for:

  • Tumour – Size of the skin cancer and degree to which it has affected other tissue
  • Node – Is a measure of whether local lymph nodes have been affected
  • Metastasis – The degree to which the cancer has spread to other organs of the body

Other than the TNM information, it is also important to know how aggressive a particular skin cancer is. Determining the grade of the cancer involves specialists looking at the skin cancer under the microscope and assessing how nasty it looks, and subsequently how aggressive it could be for the patient. Tumour grades are described below:

Grade 1

The cancer is slow growing, with cancer cells looking a little different to normal skin cells.

Grade 2 (intermediate)

The cancer is growing faster than grade 1 cancer cells and the cells do not look like normal skin cells.

Grade 3 (high)

The cancer cells are fast growing and look very unusual.

Treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer

There are many different types of treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer. Your treatment will depend on you and your cancer.

Skin cancer screening at Icon Cancer Centre

Icon Cancer Centre is proud to offer comprehensive skin cancer screening at select centres in NSW and VIC. For more information and to speak with our compassionate team, make an enquiry.

Learn more

Frequently asked questions about non-melanoma skin cancerFAQs

Is non-melanoma skin cancer hereditary?

Regardless of your skin type and family history, everyone is at risk of damage to your skin through sun exposure and developing skin cancer.

There are some very rare genetic syndromes that are passed down through families which can expose people to a higher risk of developing skin cancer, including Gorlin syndrome. People with this syndrome have an increased risk of developing basal cell skin cancers.

What causes non-melanoma skin cancer?

The main risk factor that leads to the development of skin cancer is damage to skin cells through exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Skin cells can also be damaged through exposure to artificial UV sources such as tanning beds.

Other risk factors include:

  • Having a large number of unusual moles
  • Fair skin
  • Freckles
  • Light eye and hair colour
  • A tendency for skin to burn rather than tan
  • Being immunosuppressed – Immunosuppression is when your natural immune system is weakened. If people are immunosuppressed, they are at an increased risk of developing particularly aggressive skin cancers. One group at risk of skin cancers from immunosuppression are transplant patients
  • Undergoing treatment for blood disorders

People who have previously had skin cancer are also at a higher risk of developing further skin cancers.

How common is non-melanoma skin cancer?

Non-melanoma skin cancers are the most common types of cancer diagnosed in Australia.

In 2020, approximately 580,000 Australians were diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers and this incidence is increasing each year.

What can I do to decrease my risk of non-melanoma skin cancer?

There are a number of factors that can reduce the risk and frequency of developing non-melanoma skin cancers. These include:

  • Avoiding sun exposure – The main way to minimise your risk of non-melanoma skin cancer is to reduce your sun exposure as best as possible, including avoiding the sun during the hottest parts of the day.  If you can’t stay out of the sun, then it’s important to cover your exposed body areas as best you can
  • Protect your skin with sunscreen – It is recommended that you wear SPF50+ sunscreen and apply this liberally and frequently while you are exposed to the sun. Applying sunscreen is encouraged as part of your daily ritual
  • Get regular skin cancer checks – Get your skin checked regularly by a doctor who specialises in skin cancer, particularly when you start to notice any sun damage or changes to your skin

Protecting your skin can reduce the number of cancers you get and the aggressiveness of these cancers. If you have previously had skin cancer, you are more likely to develop further skin cancers as you already have some level of sun damage.

When should I start getting skin cancer checks?

As we get older, it’s very common to start to develop signs of sun damage. This is why you should get your skin checked by a doctor that specialises in skin cancers. It is recommended that you have a skin cancer check once every 12 months, however this will depend on your individual circumstances. If you are showing signs of sun damage, your doctor may encourage you to get skin cancer checks more regularly.

Regardless of the level of sun damage or the type of skin cancer, the earlier that skin cancer is diagnosed, the more effectively it can be treated and managed.

Where can I find out more about non-melanoma skin cancer screening?

If you notice any changes in your skin that resemble skin cancer symptoms, we encourage you to make an appointment with a doctor who specialises in skin cancer.

At Icon, we are proud to offer the latest in skin cancer screening at several of our centres across Australia. Learn more.

To learn more about checking for signs of skin cancer, visit Cancer Council Australia.


Should you protect your eyes as well as your skin from the sun?

It’s important to protect all areas of your body from the sun, including your eyes. Unprotected sun exposure can result in burns to the eyes, just like the skin, leading to cancer of the cornea (the outermost layer of the eye) or conjunctiva (thin layer that covers the front part of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids) and increasing the risk of cataracts.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists endorse the following ways to protect your eyes from sun damage and related cancers.

Cancer Council Australia recommend using eye protection when the UV (ultraviolet) index is greater than 3 by:

  • Reducing exposure to UV sunlight (and other sources) as much as possible
  • Using wraparound sunglasses that meet the Australian & New Zealand Standards
  • Wearing a broad-rimmed or bucket hat to aid further UV protection
What about the benefits of sun exposure to our skin for vitamin D levels?

There is strong evidence to suggest that vitamin D is essential to strengthen bones and maintain skeletal health. While some vitamin D can be obtained from diet, our main source of vitamin D is from the sun.

Based on the position statement approved by the Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society, the Australasian College of Dermatologists, Cancer Council Australia, Endocrine Society of Australia and Osteoporosis Australia, the following recommendations have been made for the general healthy population.

When the UV index* is below 3:

  • It isn’t recommended to use sun protection
  • It’s recommended to spend some time outside in the middle of the day on most days to help increase vitamin D production

When the UV index* is 3 or above:

  • It’s recommended to use sun protection in the form of wide brimmed hats, sunglasses, sunscreen and shade if you are going to be outside for more than a few minutes
  • In some places of Australia during the cooler months, the UV index may still exceed 3 in the middle of the day. It’s important to check the UV index specific to your location and use a combination of sun protection measures

*UV Index statistics can be found on the Bureau of Meteorology website. The Cancer Council also have a free Sun Smart app for all smartphone users.

Are there clinical trials available for non-melanoma skin cancer that I can participate in?

Icon delivers Australia’s largest private cancer clinical trials and research program participating in international and national trials across medical oncology, haematology and radiation oncology. If you would like more information on participating in a clinical trial, please speak with your doctor.

See current clinical trials delivered by Icon Cancer Centre.


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. Australian Family Physician (2012). Non-melanoma skin cancers: Treatment options. Retrieved 22 November 2021 from
  2. (2020). Skin Cancer (Non-Melanoma): Introduction. Retrieved 22 November 2021 from
  3. Australian Government: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2008). Non-melanoma skin cancer: general practice consultations, hospitalisations and mortality. Retrieved 22 November 2021 from
  4. Cancer Council (2021). Non-melanoma skin cancer. Retrieved 22 November 2021 from
  5. Cancer Council (2021) Stages of Cancer. Retrieved 24 November 2011 from
  6. Better Health Channel (2021). Skin cancer – risk factors. Retrieved on 22 November 2021 from
  7. Melanoma Factsheet. (n.d). Cancer Council. Retrieved on 15th February 2019 from
  8. Fact sheet – eye protection. (n.d). Cancer Council Australia. Retrieved on 15th February 2019 from
  9. Position statement – Sun exposure and vitamin D – risks and benefits. Cancer Council Australia. (2016). Retrieved on 15th February 2019 from
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