Can Skin Cancer Kill You?

Reviewed on 10/12/2021

Skin cancer can kill you, especially melanoma, which can be fatal if not treated promptly. Life expectancy for skin cancer depends on the type and stage of cancer and whether it has metastasized.
Skin cancer can kill you, especially melanoma, which can be fatal if not treated promptly. Life expectancy for skin cancer depends on the type and stage of cancer and whether it has metastasized.

Skin cancer occurs when cells in the skin grow abnormally and out of control.

There are different types of skin cancer

  • Basal cell carcinoma 
    • The most common type of skin cancer, accounting for about 80% of cases 
    • Originates in the basal cells, found in the lower layer of skin, that are responsible for producing new skin as the old skin layers die off
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
    • Another common type of skin cancer 
    • Occurs when cells in the top layer of skin (the epidermis) grow out of control
  • Melanoma 
    • A serious type of skin cancer that develops when melanocytes (the cells that give the skin its pigmentation, or color) grow out of control
    • Untreated melanoma can spread (metastasize) to internal organs and can be life-threatening
    • It is less common than basal or squamous cell skin cancers but can be more deadly

Skin cancer can kill you. Melanoma in particular can be fatal if not treated promptly. 

Life expectancy for skin cancer depends on the type and stage of the cancer and whether it has metastasized. Life expectancy is often expressed in five-year survival rates, that is, how many people are alive five years after diagnosis. 

  • Basal cell carcinoma:
    • Most cases of basal cell carcinoma are treatable
    • The five-year recurrence rate is about 5%
    • Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads (metastasizes) so patients can generally expect a normal life expectancy if the cancer is treated promptly
    • Advanced basal cell carcinoma is rare, however, if the cancer is allowed to progress, it can cause significant illness
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: 
    • Most cases of squamous cell carcinoma are treatable, but it is more likely than basal cell carcinoma to spread
    • Only about two to five percent of cases of squamous cell carcinoma return
    • Advanced squamous cell carcinoma is rare, however, if the cancer progresses, it can be deadly
  • Melanoma: 
    • This is the deadliest type of skin cancer
    • If melanoma is localized, which means it has not spread beyond the initial tumor, the five-year survival rate is 99%
    • Melanoma that is regional, meaning it has spread to nearby structures and lymph nodes, has a 65% five-year survival rate
    • Melanoma that is distant, meaning it has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver, or skin on other parts of the body, has a 25% five-year survival rate

What Are Symptoms & Signs of Skin Cancer?

Symptoms of skin cancer include changes in skin lesions or moles, or the development of new moles that can be remembered by the ABCDE’s: 

  • Asymmetry – Irregularly shaped, each half looks different
  • Border – Jagged, uneven, irregular edges
  • Color – Mole is several different colors
  • Diameter – Size greater than ¼ inch (about the side of an eraser on the end of a pencil)
  • Evolution – Changes in size, shape, or color

Other symptoms of skin cancer include:

  • Rough or scaly red patches, which might crust or bleed
  • Raised growths or lumps, sometimes with a depressed area in the center
  • A pearly white bump
  • Translucent appearing bumps
  • Open sores (that may ooze or crust over) that don’t completely heal, or that heal and return
  • Wart-like growths
  • Waxy skin growths with raised border and depression in the center
  • Flat, scaly patches
  • A flat area that is only slightly different from normal skin
  • Bleeding 
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Crusting
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Spider veins” (telangiectases) visible on the surface 
  • Black-blue or brown areas 

When skin cancer spreads (metastasizes) symptoms may include:

  • Feeling unwell (malaise)
  • Headaches and seizures (symptoms of spread to the brain) 
  • Shortness of breath (symptoms of spread to the lungs)
  • Bone pain and fractures (symptoms of spread to the bones)


Self-examination is important in the detection of skin cancer. See Answer

What Causes Skin Cancer?

Most cases of skin cancer are caused by repeated and unprotected skin exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from sunlight and tanning beds. 

Risk factors for developing skin cancer include:

  • Ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the sun or tanning beds
  • Having certain types of moles 
  • Having fair skin that freckles or burns easily, light hair, and blue or green eyes
  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Personal history of skin cancers 
  • Having a compromised immune system, such as people who have HIV/AIDS, are organ transplant recipients, or are receiving certain medical treatments such as chemotherapy
  • Older age: the risk increases as people age
  • Being male
  • Exposure to certain chemicals
  • Radiation treatment 
  • Long-term or severe skin inflammation or injury
    • Such as scars from severe burns, areas of skin over serious bone infections, and skin damaged by some severe inflammatory skin diseases 
  • Psoralen plus ultraviolet A light (PUVA) used to treat psoriasis
  • Drugs that cause photosensitivity (sensitivity of skin to sunlight), such as tetracycline antibiotics or thiazide diuretics
  • Therapeutic ionizing radiation, such as that used to treat facial acne, psoriasis, or tinea capitis
  • Dietary factors, such as high intake (more than twice weekly) of citrus products which contain compounds called furocoumarins that are considered photocarcinogenic agents
  • Smoking
  • Basal cell nevus syndrome (also known as nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome or Gorlin syndrome)
  • Chronic arsenic exposure
  • Certain genetic disorders 
  • Certain inherited disorders 

How Is Skin Cancer Diagnosed?

A doctor will examine the skin all over the body. If skin cancer is suspected, tests may be performed such as: 

  • Skin biopsy
    • Shave (tangential) biopsy
    • Punch biopsy
    • Excisional biopsy: removes the entire tumor
    • Incisional biopsy: removes only a portion of the tumor
  • Lymph node biopsy
    • Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy
    • Surgical (excisional) lymph node biopsy
  • Imaging tests 

What Is the Treatment for Skin Cancer?

Treatment for skin cancer usually depends on the type and stage of the cancer and includes:

  • Surgery to remove the cancer
    • Electrodesiccation and curettage 
    • Excisional surgery 
    • Mohs micrographically controlled surgery 
    • Cryosurgery 
  • Local treatments other than surgery 
    • Cryotherapy
    • Photodynamic therapy (PDT)
    • Topical chemotherapy
    • Immune response modifiers
    • Laser surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy 
  • Targeted therapy

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Reviewed on 10/12/2021