Skin cancer diagnosis & treatment

Diagnosis of skin cancer

Almost 6 in 10 (55%) of melanoma skin cancer cases in England are diagnosed via the ‘two-week wait’ referral route. This means that a primary care clinician (nurse or GP) assessed the case as suspect and referred the patient to a secondary care clinician for specialist diagnosis and biopsy. This proportion is high compared with the average across all cancer types. More than 9 in 10 (92%) of these cases with known stage are diagnosed early (stage I or II).

Treatment of skin cancer


The main treatment for skin cancer is surgery. For most people, surgery removes the cancer and is the only treatment they need.

The surgery is usually minor. Your usually have an injection of local anaesthetic in the area and then the doctor removes the cancer and a small amount of the surrounding tissue. You might have a skin graft depending on where the cancer is in the body, or if it covers a larger area.

There are different types of surgery, what you need depends on where the cancer is and how big it is.


Radiotherapy is a treatment for BCC or SCC. You're most likely to have this if:

  • the cancer covers a wide area

  • it's in an area that's difficult to operate on

  • surgery isn't suitable for you

  • it's to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery

  • the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes


Imiquimod cream (Aldara) uses the immune system to attack cancers. Imiquimod makes cells produce more chemicals such as interferon and these destroy the skin cancer cells.

You might have it as a treatment if you have BCC in the top layer of skin or actinic keratosis. Actinic keratosis can develop into a SCC over time.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses a drug to make your skin sensitive to light. Once you have had the drug your doctor focuses a special type of light on the area where the cancer is. This destroys the cancer cells.

PDT is a treatment for BCC, Bowen's disease and actinic keratosis (solar keratosis).


Chemotherapy cream is a treatment for:

  • actinic keratosis (solar keratosis)

  • skin cancers that are only on the top layer of the skin

  • Bowen's disease

You usually have a type of chemotherapy cream containing Fluorouracil (5FU). Actinic keratosis might develop into squamous cell skin cancer over time. So you have treatment to try to prevent this from happening.

You might have chemotherapy tablets or injections if your cancer has spread. Having chemotherapy in this way can help to relieve symptoms in cancers that cannot be cured.

Web content: Cancer Research UK, Accessed Oct 2019.

Skin Cancer Statistics