Skin Cancer of Epithelial Origin

Skin cancers of epithelial origin (non-melanoma skin cancer) are the most frequent skin cancers in adult and later age, especially in the areas most exposed to ultraviolet rays, such as the face and back of the hands.

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Prevention is the most effective instrument for reducing the incidence and mortality of skin cancer. Early diagnosis is a priority aspect based on signs of skin cancer, as it allows you to diagnose skin cancers at an early stage, reducing the weight of therapies and assuring the best prognosis.

Enlisting medical experts from a cancer reference centre allows adequate and prompt screening of the population.  For patients who have already received a diagnosis of skin cancer, a centre of excellence enables correct description of the disease and planning of therapy.


At the IEO skin cancer of ephitelial origin is treated by a multidisciplinary team consisting of specialists in:


Subjects most at risk factor of skin cancer of epithelial origin are those with fair complexion and hair, a long history of sun exposure and sunburn. Risk increasing factors can be chronic immunosuppressive therapies.

During the first visit the specialist will evaluate your risk factors for skin cancer by considering a series of variables such as: personal and family history of melanoma and other skin cancers, previous sunburns, patient's tendency to tan, inclination to use artificial sun beds or lamps, tendency to use sun protection, history of interventions for removal of moles (naevi) or other skin lesions.

The collection of this information will be followed by a clinical exam of the entire body surface manually using a dermatoscope. This allows the specialist to evaluate the neo and any other lesions, such as the presence of actinic keratosis (precancerous lesions, expression of actinic damage to the skin) or non-melanocytic skin lesions (non-melanoma skin cancer).

Based on all information collected and the subject's clinical evaluation, the patient will be separated into one of different categories.

Low-risk patients (risk comparable with that of the general population) without suspected skin cancer lesions: in this case the specialist may advise regular periodic check-ups.


There are two main types of skin cancer of epithelial origin:
a) Squamous cell or spinocellular carcinoma
b) Basal cell carcinoma or basalioma

These are the most frequent skin cancers in the general population, especially in those older than 50 years.

Squamous cell carcinoma originates from the keratinocytes in the epidermis and represents around 20% of epithelial origin cancers.
The behaviour of squamous cell carcinoma can be aggressive, therefore early diagnosis based on skin cancer symptoms is important.
Surgical removal is the treatment of choice in the majority of cases of skin cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma is a very frequent epithelial origin skin cancer in the general population.
Basal cell carcinoma can be locally aggressive, therefore early diagnosis based on skin cancer symptoms is also fundamental for this type.
Early diagnosis forms the most effective instrument for reducing death associated with skin cancer. Recognising the signs of skin cancer of epithelial origin at the initial phase means having an excellent prognosis. To make an early diagnosis of skin cancer of epithelial origin it is essential to undergo periodic specialist consultations at centers with specific and expert professionals.

Primary prevention involves appropriate behaviour for reducing the risk of onset of a skin cancer of epithelial origin. For skin cancer of epithelial origin it is important to limit exposure to sunlight, find areas of shade if remaining in sunlit places for long periods and avoiding exposure to the sun during the middle part of the day.
Sun protection cream can be helpful for avoiding erythema (sunburn, for instance) and should be applied every 2 hours, in adults and in children.

Secondary prevention has the goal of reducing mortality through melanoma and other skin cancers by anticipating diagnosis and early treatment of the high-risk forms.

For main skin cancers of epithelial origin, secondary prevention is based on the following:

  • periodic self-examination of the skin looking at possible signs of skin cancer every 3 months
  • periodic dermatology visits at specialist centers

Signs of skin cancer - what does skin cancer look like?

When self-examining the skin it is essential to look carefully. A relative, friend or partner can help to inspect the less visible regions of the body, such as the back and the rear surface of the thighs, paying attention to skin cancer symptoms.

For self-examination of the skin and in particular for distinguishing the skin cancer symptoms as potential malignant lesions, it can be helpful to remember the ABCDEF rule:

A for Asymmetry: the shape of a benign neo is generally circular or at least regular, while a melanoma is irregular

B for Borders: in melanoma, irregular and indistinct

C for Colour: variable in melanoma (or with different shades within the neo itself)

D for Dimensions: increasing in melanoma, both in width and thickness

E for Evolution: in melanoma, the characteristics of the neo (symmetry, borders, colour, dimensions) change over time

F for Firmness

Symptoms of skin cancer: one or more clinically atypical or suspected lesions

Regardless of the risk attributable to the subject based on the information collected, if one or more suspected skin lesions are found the patient will be offered the option of undergoing more thorough diagnosis using a digital videodermatoscope and confocal laser microscopy.

Digital videodermatoscopy allows magnified, high-resolution images of the skin lesions to be obtained to be able to examine the characteristics that cannot be appreciated with the naked eye or by manual dermatoscopy alone.

Confocal laser microscopy is a non-invasive technology which can obtain live images of the skin cancers at variable depth and with a very high resolution (virtual biopsy).

The combination of videodermatoscopy and confocal laser microscopy will, in many cases, enable avoiding surgical removal of the skin cancer. Where one or more lesions present the suspected characteristics of skin cancer, surgical exeresis will be carried out for histopathological investigation.

Patients who have risk factors for the development  the skin cancer of epithelial origin, especially if they have numerous moles or naevi, will be offered digital mapping.

Digital mapping is carried out in two phases. The first takes high resolution photographs of various areas of the body (face, trunk, limbs, extremities). The second phase involves acquiring a series of high-resolution images and neos and any other skin lesions by digital videodermatoscopy. This will provide a digital archive of the representative lesions of a subject in order potentially to follow the evolution of these lesions in skin cancers. In addition, by comparing the images of the various areas of the body it will be possible to identify any new recently onset lesions.

In each case the consultation for the skin lesions, as possible skin cancers of epithelial origin, will be followed by a brief explanation of the best strategies for reducing the risk non-melanoma skin cancer. Specifically, each subject will be explained how to avoid excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays and the appropriate sun protection will be indicated. Furthermore, it will be explained to each subject how to perform a self-examination of skin lesions, looking at signs of skin cancer and following simple and understandable rules.

We believe that the moment of diagnosis must always be accompanied by a moment of education for both children and adults on how to provide correct prevention of the skin cancer risk.


The treatment options for skin cancer of epithelial origin can be many and include surgical removal and, for certain cases, a series of therapies such as immunomodulators by topical use or photodynamic therapy for example.

Surgical removal is the best therapy available for skin cancers of epithelial origin, and it is curative in the majority of cases. For basal cell epitheliomas and for non-invasive and well differentiated spinocellular epitheliomas, complete surgical removal is therapeutic. At IEO, for lesions in difficult surgical sites, extemporaneous histology exam at the margins of surgical resection is in use in clinical practice. This method allows verifying, during the intervention, that the removal has been performed completely.

For squamous cell carcinoma, when the skin cancer's histology characteristics require it, wide local excision (with or without plastic repair) of the skin site of the early cancer is performed with potential biopsy of the sentinel lymph node. This surgical procedure also allows early diagnosis of any lymph node metastases of the skin cancer.

In the presence of one or more microscopic (if diagnosed by the sentinel lymph node biopsy) or macroscopic (if visible, found during the clinic visit or via follow-up ultrasound) locoregional lymph node metastases, radical lymph nodal dissection of all lymph nodes in the same lymphatic basin is indicated (the most frequent sites are axillary, inguinal or supraclavicular). In cases selected for palliative purposes or in the absence of other treatment strategies, electrochemotherapy can be offered.


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