Causes of skin cancer (non-melanoma)

It is not known exactly why skin cancer develops, although it is closely linked to overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light.

What is cancer?

The body is made up of millions of different cells. Cancer happens when some of the cells multiply in an abnormal way. When cancer affects organs and solid tissues, it causes a growth called a tumour. Cancer can occur in any part of the body.

Left untreated, cancer can quickly grow and spread to other parts of the body, usually through the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is a series of glands throughout the body linked together in a similar way to the blood circulation system. If you have a cold or flu, the glands that come up in the neck are the lymph glands (also called lymph nodes). The lymph glands produce many of the cells needed by your immune system.

Once the cancer reaches your lymphatic system, it can spread to any other part of your body, including your bones, blood and organs.

Sun exposure

Exposure to sunlight is thought to be the leading cause of all types of skin cancer.

Sunlight contains UV light that can affect the skin. There are two main types of UV – ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). Both UVA and UVB damage skin over time, making it more likely for skin cancers to develop.

Artificial sources of light, such as sunlamps and tanning beds, also increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

Repeated sunburn, either by the sun or artificial sources of light, will make your skin more vulnerable to non-melanoma skin cancer.

Family history

Research suggests that if you have two or more close relatives who have had non-melanoma skin cancer, your chances of developing the condition may be increased.

Increased risk

Certain factors are believed to increase your chances of developing all types of skin cancer, including:

  • pale skin that does not tan easily
  • red or blonde hair
  • blue eyes
  • age
  • a large number of moles
  • a large number of freckles
  • an area of skin previously damaged by burning or radiotherapy treatment
  • a condition that suppresses your immune system, such as HIV
  • medicines that suppress your immune system (immunosuppressants), commonly used after organ transplants
  • exposure to certain chemicals, such as creosote and arsenic
  • a previous diagnosis of skin cancer

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