Skin Cancer Prognosis and Survival Rates
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2020. | Last updated: February 2023
When skin cancer is removed and it does not come back, it is considered cured. Recurrence is when the cancer comes back after a period of time. These factors can affect identifying skin cancer survival rates.
How are skin cancer survival rates measured?
Cancer survival is measured in many different ways, including:1
- Five-year overall survival rate is the percentage of people who are still alive 5 years after diagnosis or treatment. If the 5-year overall survival rate after diagnosis is 85 percent, that means that 5 years after being diagnosed with melanoma, 85 of 100 people are still alive. Some of those people may still have cancer, others do not.
- Disease-free survival is how long a person survives after treatment without any sign of that cancer.
- Median overall survival is the average length of time from treatment (or diagnosis) that half the study population is still alive. For example, consider 100 people who are treated with a medication and 3.1 years later, 50 have died and 50 are alive. The median overall survival is 3.1 years.
When looking at a skin cancer survival rate, it is important to know what group was studied. Survival rates can differ greatly by cancer stage, age at diagnosis, gender, and race/ethnicity. The most accurate numbers about skin cancer survival are about melanoma because cases of melanoma are tracked in national cancer registries.
Melanoma survival rates
Melanoma is less common than non-melanoma skin cancers, but it is more dangerous. Melanoma is more likely than other skin cancers to invade deeper layers of skin and spread to other body parts.
Can melanoma be cured?
Most melanomas can be treated and removed with surgery if they are caught early.2 Melanomas are removed with a procedure called wide excision. Excision means “cut out.” The surgeon removes the entire tumor, along with some of the healthy skin surrounding it, called the “margin.” The purpose of the margin is to remove any cancer cells that might have spread. This reduces the risk that the tumor comes back.2
Melanoma may come back in its original location or on a new part of the body. The risk of recurrence depends on many factors, including:3
- How thick the melanoma was
- How far the melanoma spread
- Whether lymph nodes were involved
- Age of patient
- What type of melanoma it is
- Where it is located
Your doctor is the best person to advise you about the risk of recurrence based on your melanoma.
Even if one melanoma is removed, you have a higher risk of another melanoma. Follow-up examinations are very important to check for recurrence of the initial melanoma or development of a new melanoma. Ask your doctor how often and for how many years you should have follow-up exams.
What are the survival rates for melanoma?
The 5-year overall survival rate for melanoma is 92.7 percent, based on the most recent data from the National Cancer Institute from 2010-2016. That means that 5 years after being diagnosed with melanoma of any type, about 92 out of 100 people are still alive. This estimate includes people of both genders, all races, and all stages at diagnosis.4
Cancer stage. One important factor in estimating survival is how far the cancer has spread by the time it is diagnosed. Local melanoma is melanoma that has not spread beyond the original tumor. About 83 percent of melanomas are caught at this early stage. The 5-year survival rate for local melanoma is 99 percent.5
If cancer cells have spread to a nearby lymph node, it is called regional metastasis. In 9 percent of cases, the melanoma has spread to regional lymph nodes at diagnosis. The 5-year survival for regional melanoma is 66.2 percent.5
Distant spread (metastasis) is when cancer cells have traveled to distant parts of the body. About 4 percent of melanoma cases have metastasized to distant locations at the time of diagnosis. The 5-year survival for distant metastatic melanoma is 27.3 percent.5
Gender. Skin cancer survival rates in women are higher than survival rates in men at all ages and stages of cancer. Five years after diagnosis, 92.5 percent of women were alive compared to 87.3 percent of men.4,6
Race. Melanoma is 20 times more common in white people than in African Americans. However, African Americans have much worse outcomes. The 5-year survival rate of African Americans was 66.9 percent between 2001 and 2016 compared to 89.2 percent of white Americans.2,6
Basal cell carcinoma survival rates
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common skin cancer. Eight out of 10 skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas. It grows very slowly and is very treatable.7
Can BCC be cured?
Most BCCs can be treated and removed with minor surgery or other local treatment. The goals of treatment are to completely remove all cancer cells while preserving the function and appearance of the affected body part. Less than 5 percent of BCCs come back after Mohs surgery and wide excision compared to 15 percent or higher for some other treatment options.8
Your doctor will recommend a treatment approach based on how likely the cancer is to grow back and its location. Even when one BCC is removed, your risk of another separate BCC is higher. Ask your doctor how often—and for how many years—you should have follow-up exams.
What are the survival rates for BCC?
Cancer registries do not collect information about basal cell carcinoma (BCC) because the majority of BCCs are diagnosed and treated easily in a doctor’s office.
Advanced BCC is so rare that there is very little information about survival rates. One study of 100 cases of metastatic BCC between 1981 and 2011 showed that median overall survival is 4.5 years. How far the cancer spread made a big difference in survival. For regional metastasis, survival was 7.2 years. For distant metastasis, it was 2 years. These estimates are based on a time when chemotherapy or radiation therapy were the only treatment options.9
Survival time with advanced BCC might be improving with newer treatments. In trials for a targeted therapy called Erivedge® (vismodegib), median overall survival was 2.8 years. The 1-year survival rate was 84.4 percent and the 2-year survival rate was 68 percent. Odomzo® (sonidegib), another targeted therapy, has similar survival outcomes. Trials of sonidegib show that 2-year survival is 93 percent for people with locally advanced BCC and 69 percent for people with metastatic BCC.10,11
Squamous cell carcinoma survival rates
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common skin cancer. Most cases are easily treated. However, SCC is more likely than BCC to be invasive and metastatic.
Can SCC be cured?
When SCC is found early—and most are—treatment usually cures this cancer.7 The first choice of treatment is to remove the tumor. Excision or Mohs surgery are used to treat SCCs that are higher risk for recurrence. Mohs surgery offers the highest cure rate for SCC. About 92 percent of SCC can be cured with excision. Curettage and electrodesiccation cures 96% of low-risk tumors.12,13
Having one SCC increases your risk of another separate SCC, so regular follow-up examinations are important.
What are the survival rates for SCC?
The vast majority of SCC is cured. Only about 2 percent to 5 percent of SCC cases grow back or spread. Unfortunately, because cases of SCC are not reported to the U.S. cancer registry it is hard to estimate survival rates. It is clear that metastatic SCC is very difficult to treat. . In large groups of people studied who have distant metastatic SCC, about 70 percent died from their disease.14,15