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Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer - What it is

Skin cancer begins in the skin’s top or outermost layer – the epidermis. The epidermis is a thin layer that provides a protective cover for the body, keeps skin hydrated, produces new skin cells and contains melanin, which determines skin colour. There are three main types of cells in the epidermis:

skin cancer - conditions & treatments

  • Squamous cells lie just below the outer surface and function as the skin’s inner lining
  • Basal cells sit beneath the squamous cells and produce new skin cells
  • Melanocytes are located in the lower part of the epidermis and produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its normal colour

Skin cancers are divided into melanoma (MSC) and non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC).

Melanoma skin cancer

Melanoma skin cancer refers to the malignant tumour of the melanocytes which behaves more aggressively than non-melanoma skin cancers. It can develop anywhere on the body, in otherwise normal skin or in an existing mole that turns cancerous. In Singapore, the incidence of melanoma skin cancer is relatively low with 0.5 cases per 100,000 persons.

Non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC)

Non-melanoma skin cancer refers to all the types of skin cancer that are not melanoma. Non-melanoma skin cancer slowly develops in the upper layers of the skin. The most common types of NMSC are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

In Singapore, non-melanoma skin cancer is much more common than melanoma skin cancer. Non-melanoma skin cancer is the 6th most common cancer in males in Singapore and the 7th most common cancer among females in Singapore. Fair-skinned populations are more susceptible to the disease.

Skin Cancer - Symptoms

Skin cancer develops primarily on areas of sun-exposed skin, including the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms and hands. However, it can also form on areas that are rarely exposed to the sun, such as beneath the palm, fingernails or toenails, and the genital area.

Melanoma skin cancer

Symptoms of melanoma skin cancer may include:

  • The appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole
  • A large brownish spot with darker speckles
  • A mole that changes in colour, size or texture
  • A bleeding mole
  • A small lesion with an irregular border and portions that appear red, pink, white, blue or blue-black
  • A painful lesion that itches or burns
  • Dark lesions on the palms, soles, fingertips or toes, or on mucous membranes lining the mouth, nose, vagina or anus

Non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC)

Symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancers may include:

Basal cell carcinoma

  • A pearly or waxy bump
  • A flat, flesh-coloured or brown scar-like lesion
  • A bleeding of scabbing sore that heals and returns

Squamous cell carcinoma

  • A firm, red nodule
  • A flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any changes to your skin that worry you.

Skin Cancer - How to prevent?

Most skin cancers are preventable. There are several ways to lower the risk of skin cancer:

  • Avoid sun exposure during the middle of the day (10am-4pm).
    • Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight increases the risk of developing skin cancer. Avoiding the sun at its strongest helps to avoid the sunburns and suntans that cause skin damage and increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
    • Sun exposure accumulated over time may also cause skin cancer.
  • Apply sunscreen all year-round, including when indoors, on cloudy days or overseas in cold weather
    • Sunscreen should be used every day, and works best when it is applied 15 minutes before going outdoors. It should be reapplied every two hours or more frequently, especially when engaging in water sports or sweating a lot.
    • Use a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB, the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of the sunscreen should be at least SPF 30 or higher. While higher-number SPFs can block slightly more of the sun’s UV rays, it is important to note that higher-number SPFs do not give longer protection and must be re-applied as frequently as sunscreens with lower SPF.
    • Apply a generous amount of sunscreen on exposed skin, including the lips, the tips of your ears, and the backs of your hands and neck.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing
    • As sunscreens do not provide complete protection from UV rays, it is important to cover your skin with dark, tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs, and a broad-brimmed hat, which provides more protection than a baseball cap or visor does.
    • Use sunglasses that block both types of UV radiation — UVA and UVB rays.
  • Avoid tanning beds as the lights used in tanning beds emit UV rays that can increase the risk of skin cancer.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the side effects of any medications you take. If they increase your sensitivity to sunlight, take extra precautions to stay out of the sun to protect your skin.
  • Examine your skin often for new skin growths or changes in existing moles, freckles, bumps and birthmarks. Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any changes that worry you.

Skin Cancer - Causes and Risk Factors

Excessive ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun (i.e. sun exposure) is the most important risk factor of skin cancers. Tanning, including exposure to tanning lamps and beds, also increases the risk of skin cancer.

Other risk factors include:

  • Moles – having many moles or abnormal/atypical moles
  • Fair skin – having less pigment (melanin) in the skin provides less protection from UV rays and causes the skin to burn easily
  • Family or personal history of skin cancers
  • A weakened immune system (due to a medical condition or medicine that affects the immune system)
  • Sunny or high-altitude climates
  • Pre-cancerous skin lesions (actinic keratosis)
  • Exposure to radiation and substances such as arsenic

Skin Cancer - Diagnosis

Tests and procedures used to diagnose skin cancer include:

  • A physical examination using a dermatoscope to determine whether the skin changes are likely to be skin cancer.
  • A skin biopsy is a minor procedure usually done under local anaesthetic (where you are conscious) where a tissue sample of the suspicious skin growth is taken and sent to the lab for testing and analysis.

In some cases, skin cancer can be diagnosed and treated at the same time. The tumour is removed and tested and you may not need further treatment if the cancer is unlikely to spread.

In other cases, once skin cancer is confirmed, further tests may be needed to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer and the most suitable treatment. The tests may include:

  • Blood test
    Blood test to determine the blood count, blood chemistry levels, and/or the levels of a substance called lactate dehydrogenase (LDH).

    For melanoma skin cancer which has spread to other parts of the body, a high LDH level is a sign that the cancer may be harder to treat. Blood cell counts and blood chemistry levels may be performed to see how well the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made), liver and kidneys are functioning before and during treatment.
  • Imaging tests
    Imaging tests (e.g. CT scan) to examine the nearby lymph nodes for signs of cancer.
  • Lymph node biopsy
    A lymph node biopsy involving the removal of a small amount of lymph node tissue for laboratory testing to check for signs of cancer.

Skin Cancer - Treatments

There are a few effective treatment options for skin cancer. In general, treatment for skin cancer depends on the following factors:

  • Size, type, depth and location of the lesion
  • Stage of the disease when the cancer is found
  • The patient’s general state of health

The main treatment for skin cancer is surgery. However, some patients may also require other treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or cryotherapy.

An individual with cancer should be assessed by a specialist to determine which treatment is best suited for them.


  • Excisional surgery
    This procedure is appropriate for any type of skin cancer. The cancerous tissue and surrounding margin of healthy skin will be cut out (excised). A wide excision – removing extra normal skin around the tumour – may be recommended in some cases. Nearby lymph nodes may be removed and biopsied to stage or treat localised spread of the tumour.
  • Mohs micrographic surgery
    This procedure is used to remove larger, recurring or difficult-to-treat skin cancers, which may include non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas. It is often used in areas where it is necessary to conserve as much skin as possible, such as on the nose.

    During the surgical procedure, the skin growth is removed layer by layer, the doctor will examine each layer under the microscope, and surgery continues until no abnormal cells remain. This procedure allows cancerous cells to be removed without taking an excessive amount of surrounding healthy tissue.

If the skin defect after surgery is large, our surgical oncologists will work with a plastic surgeon to provide reconstructive services to restore a natural appearance. The multidisciplinary team will ensure good oncology treatment and aesthetic reconstruction for best outcomes.

Freezing (cryotherapy)

Cryotherapy refers to the use of liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy pre-cancerous skin lesions (actinic keratosis) and some small early skin cancers. Freezing causes the cancerous tissue to die and form a scab that will naturally fall off in time.

Curettage and electrodessication

This is a simple and quick procedure used to treat basal cell cancers or thin squamous cell cancers. After removing most of the skin growth, the doctor scrapes away layers of cancer cells using a device with a circular blade (curet). An electric needle is then used to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

When necessary, this procedure may be used in combination with cryotherapy (see above).

Radiotherapy/ Radiation therapy

Radiotherapy also known as radiation therapy uses powerful energy beams to kill cancer cells. It may be used when the cancer cannot be completely removed during surgery.


For cancers limited to the top layer of skin, creams or lotions containing anti-cancer agents may be applied directly to the skin. Systemic chemotherapy (injected into a vein or taken orally) can be used to treat skin cancers that have spread to other parts of the body.

In patients with advanced skin cancer, chemotherapy may be used alone or with surgery, immunotherapy and radiotherapy.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy destroys skin cancer cells with a combination of laser light and drugs that makes cancer cells sensitive to light.

Skin Cancer - Preparing for surgery

If surgery is required, your surgeon will perform comprehensive medical assessments including blood tests and scans, to see if you are suitable and advise on the risks involved. Your treatment recommendation is often based on consensus by a group of medical specialists' opinions (the tumour board), who come together to discuss the pros and cons of every treatment strategy.

The anaesthesia team will also assess your fitness for surgery and advise you on various aspects of general anaesthesia and pain control after surgery.

Specialist nurses will also provide pre-surgery counselling so that you know what to expect.

Skin Cancer - Post-surgery care

After surgery, you will be given regular outpatient appointments to see your team of doctors. During these appointments, you may have blood tests and scans to check if the cancer recurs.

It is important to follow your doctor's advice, keep to your clinic visits and do the recommended scans, so that timely treatment can be administered if the cancer or other problems occur.

Skin Cancer - Other Information

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The information provided is not intended as medical advice. Terms of use. Information provided by SingHealth