Where Does Skin Cancer Spread to First? Understanding the Spread and Effects of Skin Cancer

Sun’s out, guns out. But along with the warmth and bright sunshine comes a risk that can make you go pale–skin cancer. Skin cancer is not only one of the most common cancer types but also one of the deadliest. If left untreated, skin cancer can spread throughout the body and become incredibly challenging to deal with. But hang on, where does skin cancer spread to first? Is it the lymph nodes or primary organs? Let’s dive in and find out what’s really going on.

While there are many types of skin cancers, melanoma is the deadliest and most aggressive of them all. This skin cancer can spread via the lymphatic system and blood vessels, but the exact site of the first arise is still under research. Melanoma skin cancer can not only invade deeper layers of the skin but also affect vital organs such as liver, lungs, brain, and intestines. In contrast, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, the most common skin cancers, tend to stay localized and rarely spread to other parts of the body, although specific types of squamous cell carcinoma can develop in areas such as the oral cavity and genital regions.

You may think skin cancer is exclusive to individuals with fair skin and light eye color, but the truth is, anyone can develop skin cancer, regardless of skin tone and ethnicity. The good news is, early detection and treatment can increase the likelihood of a successful cure. Regular skin self-examinations, sun safety practices, and seeking medical advice from a dermatologist can help keep skin cancer at bay. Now, let’s unravel the mystery of where skin cancer spreads to first.

Common types of skin cancer

Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells and can appear anywhere on the skin. The most common lesion types are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC): BCC is the most frequently occurring skin cancer, accounting for 80 percent of all skin cancers cases. It develops on sun-exposed skin, typically on the head, neck, or arms and appears as a pearly or waxy bump with visible blood vessels.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC): SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer, accounting for nearly 16% of all non-melanoma skin cancers. SCC appears as a red, scaly patch or bump that often develops on the ears, face, neck, hands, or arms.
  • Melanoma: Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, resulting from an uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. They are often black or brown and can appear anywhere on the skin, including areas that are not traditionally sun-exposed.

While skin cancer can form almost anywhere on the body, it typically spreads to the nearby lymph nodes first. According to the American Cancer Society, if skin cancer has already spread from the skin to nearby lymph nodes, it is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body such as the lungs, liver, or bones. Thus, it is crucial to have regular skin examinations and to seek medical attention if you notice any changes to your skin.

Risk factors for developing skin cancer

Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, and its incidence continues to rise. One of the main reasons for this increase is the high exposure of the population to the sun, UV radiation, and other harmful environmental factors. The following are some of the risk factors that increase the chances of developing skin cancer:

  • Fair skin: People who have fair skin, freckles, and light-colored hair are more at risk of getting skin cancer as their skin contains less melanin, which provides protection from the sun.
  • Family history: If one or more close family members have had skin cancer, then the risk of developing it is higher.
  • Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation: Prolonged exposure to UV radiation, from the sun or tanning beds, increases the risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Large number of moles: People who have a large number of moles on their skin, or have atypical moles, have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

Where does skin cancer spread to first?

Depending on the type of skin cancer, it may spread to different parts of the body. Melanoma, which is the most dangerous type of skin cancer, tends to spread quickly to other parts of the body. It often spreads to the lymph nodes first, which are part of the immune system and help fight off infections. From there, it can spread to other organs, such as the lungs, liver, or brain. Non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, usually do not spread to other parts of the body.


The best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect your skin from the sun. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, wear protective clothing, and avoid being outside during peak sun hours. Regular skin exams by a dermatologist can also help detect skin cancer early, when it is most treatable.


Type of Skin Cancer Spread to other parts of the body
Melanoma Lymph nodes, then other organs
Basal cell carcinoma Usually does not spread
Squamous cell carcinoma Usually does not spread

Understanding the risks associated with skin cancer and taking preventive measures can significantly reduce the chances of developing this disease.

Symptoms of Skin Cancer

As the most common type of cancer, skin cancer can manifest itself in various forms and locations on the body. However, recognizing the early warning signs of these malignancies can be crucial in preventing its spread and enabling more effective treatment. Here are some of the most common symptoms of skin cancer:

  • Changes in moles or growths: Skin cancer often appears as a new mark on the skin or as a variation from an existing mole or growth. Look for differences in color, size, shape, or texture.
  • Unusual markings: If you notice a sore that does not heal or a scab that repeatedly reappears, it could be a sign of skin cancer. Other warning signs include persistent itching, pain, or bleeding in the affected area.
  • Skin discoloration: Some forms of skin cancer can cause the skin to take on a different color or tone. These changes may be subtle, such as a slight yellowing or darkening, or more noticeable in the form of red, pink, or purple patches.

While these symptoms may not always be indicative of skin cancer, it is important to seek medical attention if you notice any changes on your skin that are persistent, unusual, or cause you concern. Early detection and treatment can greatly improve the chances of successful outcomes and prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of your body.

Stages of Skin Cancer

There are three main stages of skin cancer, each with its own characteristics and treatment options. Understanding the stages of skin cancer is important in determining appropriate treatment and understanding potential outcomes.

Stage 1

  • Small, early-stage tumors or growths
  • Typically less than 2 cm in diameter
  • Located only in the outer layer of skin (epidermis)
  • May appear as a flat or raised mole, or a pink/red scaly spot

Stage 2

  • Larger tumors or growths
  • Between 2-4 cm in diameter
  • May have started to invade deeper layers of the skin
  • May have begun to spread to nearby lymph nodes

Stage 3

Stage 3 skin cancer is divided into two subcategories: Stage 3A and Stage 3B.

Stage 3A

  • Tumor is larger than 4 cm, or has started to invade underlying tissue
  • May have started to spread to nearby lymph nodes
  • Lymph nodes affected may be stuck together and move as a unit when touched (known as “fixed” nodes)

Stage 3B

Features Description
Ulceration The skin over the tumor has broken down or formed an ulcer
Satellite metastases Additional tumor growths have formed within 2 cm of the primary tumor, but have not yet spread to nearby lymph nodes
In-transit metastases Tumor growths have formed further away from the primary tumor and may be located between the primary tumor and the nearest lymph nodes

At Stage 3B, skin cancer may have begun to spread to distant areas of the body (known as metastatic skin cancer) and require more aggressive treatment.

Treatment Options for Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is a potentially serious condition that affects millions of people worldwide. While the disease is preventable, early detection and treatment are essential to achieve the best outcomes. There are several treatment options available for skin cancer patients, depending on the type and stage of their cancer.

Surgical Options

  • Excisional biopsy: This approach removes the entire tumor along with a surrounding margin of healthy skin.
  • Mohs surgery: This technique is performed for recurring or large skin cancers and involves removing layers of skin incrementally until all cancer cells are eliminated.
  • Cryotherapy: This treatment option freezes cancerous cells and destroys them.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is an option for skin cancer patients who are not eligible for surgery or those whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body. This treatment uses high-energy radiation to eliminate cancer cells.

Topical Treatments

These treatments are typically used for minor, early-stage skin cancers and pre-cancerous lesions. They are applied directly to the skin and work by destroying cancerous cells. Topical treatments include:

  • Imiquimod: A cream that enhances the immune system’s ability to fight off cancer cells.
  • 5-Fluorouracil: A topical chemotherapy that destroys cancer cells by inhibiting their ability to divide and grow.
  • Diclofenac: A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that works by causing cell death in cancer cells.


Systemic chemotherapy is used when skin cancer has spread to other parts of the body. It involves delivering cancer-fighting drugs directly into the bloodstream, which then circulate throughout the body.

Chemotherapy drug Common side effects
Cisplatin Nausea, vomiting, hair loss, kidney damage
Doxorubicin Nausea, vomiting, hair loss, mouth sores
Paclitaxel Hair loss, neuropathy, joint pain, low blood cell counts

While chemotherapy can be an effective treatment, it is associated with several side effects that can impact a person’s quality of life. Patients should discuss the potential benefits and risks of chemotherapy with their doctors before undergoing treatment.

Tips for preventing skin cancer

Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the world. While it is often curable when detected early, it can also spread to other parts of the body and become life-threatening. Here are some tips on how to prevent skin cancer:

1. Wear protective clothing and sunscreen

  • Cover up your skin with long-sleeved shirts, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat when you go outside.
  • Use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and apply it generously to all exposed skin every two hours, or more often if you’re swimming or sweating.

2. Avoid the sun during peak hours

  • The sun is strongest between 10 am and 4 pm, so try to stay inside during those hours if possible.
  • If you need to be outside during those hours, seek shade or create your own with an umbrella or awning.

3. Be cautious of tanning beds

  • Tanning beds emit harmful UV radiation that can cause skin damage and increase your risk of skin cancer.
  • Avoid using tanning beds altogether, and if you must use them, limit your exposure as much as possible.

4. Keep an eye on your moles and skin

  • Check your skin regularly for any changes, such as new moles, growths, or changes in size, shape, or color of existing moles.
  • See a dermatologist if you notice any suspicious skin changes.

5. Don’t forget your eyes and lips

  • Your eyes and lips are also at risk for skin cancer, so wear sunglasses with UV protection and use a lip balm with SPF.

6. Get regular check-ups with your doctor

Finally, it’s important to see your doctor on a regular basis for check-ups and cancer screenings. They may be able to detect skin cancer early and provide prompt treatment.

Cancer type Possible spread sites
Basal cell carcinoma Local spread to nearby tissue but usually does not metastasize (spread to distant organs)
Squamous cell carcinoma Local spread to nearby tissue and lymph nodes; can spread to distant organs as well
Melanoma Can spread anywhere in the body, but most commonly to lymph nodes, lungs, liver, and brain

Importance of Regular Skin Cancer Screenings

Regular skin cancer screenings are crucial as they detect potential skin cancers early, enabling prompt treatment to prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. Dermatologists recommend that everyone undergo a skin examination at least once a year, especially those with a history of skin cancer or those who spend a lot of time outdoors.

  • Annual screenings allow dermatologists to detect any unusual growths or moles that could be early signs of skin cancer. If detected early, these growths are more treatable and less likely to spread to other parts of the body.
  • During a screening, dermatologists examine the entire body, including areas that are not typically exposed to the sun, such as the scalp and soles of the feet. These areas are often overlooked but are still susceptible to skin cancer.
  • For those with a history of skin cancer or who have previously had an abnormal mole removed, more frequent screenings may be necessary. Dermatologists may recommend every six months or even more frequently depending on the individual’s risk factors.

It is important to note that skin cancer is highly curable if detected and treated early. However, if left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body, making treatment much more complicated. Below is a table that outlines where skin cancer commonly spreads:

Types of Skin Cancer Common Sites of Spread
Melanoma Lungs, liver, bone, brain, and lymph nodes
Squamous Cell Carcinoma Lymph nodes, distant skin, and bones
Basal Cell Carcinoma Uncommon to spread, but can invade nearby tissue and bone

Therefore, scheduling regular skin cancer screenings with a dermatologist is essential in detecting any potential skin cancers early and preventing the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

Frequently Asked Questions about Where Does Skin Cancer Spread to First

1. What are the common areas where skin cancer spreads first?
Skin cancer can spread to lymph nodes, bones, liver, and lungs, but it mostly spreads to the adjacent tissues in the skin.

2. How long does it take for skin cancer to spread to other parts of the body?
The speed of skin cancer metastasis or spreading depends on several factors such as the type, stage, location, and individual’s health. In some cases, skin cancer can spread within months, whereas in other cases, it may take several years.

3. Can skin cancer spread to the brain?
Although it is less common, skin cancer can metastasize to the brain. It is usually a sign of advanced or aggressive skin cancer.

4. Will a biopsy cause the skin cancer to spread?
No, a biopsy will not spread skin cancer or increase its risk of metastasis. In fact, a biopsy is the only definitive way to confirm a skin cancer diagnosis.

5. Can skin cancer come back after it has been removed?
Yes, skin cancer can recur even after it has been removed completely. Regular skin checks and follow-up appointments with a dermatologist can help detect any potential recurrence.

6. Is skin cancer always fatal when it spreads?
Not all cases of skin cancer that spread lead to death. However, metastatic skin cancer can be life-threatening and have a poor prognosis, especially if it is not detected and treated early.

7. How can I reduce the risk of skin cancer spreading?
The most effective way to prevent skin cancer from spreading is to undergo appropriate treatment, follow up with a professional dermatologist, and maintain a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and stress management.

Thanks for Reading!

We hope that these FAQs have helped you understand better where skin cancer can spread first. Remember, early detection and treatment are the keys to preventing skin cancer from spreading further. Talk to your dermatologist if you are concerned about any skin changes. Come back to us for the latest updates and tips on skincare and cancer prevention. Stay safe and healthy!