Australia has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. It is also the easiest to cure, but only if diagnosed and treated early. If it is allowed to progress it can be fatal.
Did you know:
- At least two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70
- Over 1,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer every day.
- Over 1,830 Australians die from skin cancer each year
- Deaths in Victoria from skin cancer are higher than the road toll
- 95% of skin cancers can be successfully treated if found early
Skin cancer and UV
Skin cancer results from skin cell damage, most often caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds.
Every time we are exposed to UV light the structure and function of our skin cells are affected. Over time this can lead to permanent cell damage and this damage will continue to develop with each exposure.
Other factors can impact on the risk of skin cancer but sun exposure is the main cause. Less than 5% of melanomas (the most deadly form of skin cancer) are attributable to an inherited gene.
Every type of skin is damaged by UV exposure, including those skin types that are a lower risk of sunburn.
Skin cancer - Are you at higher risk?
If you identify with any of the following you are at a higher risk of skin cancer:
- You have previously had skin cancer
- You have a family history of skin cancer
- You have a skin type that burns easily or is sensitive to UV light
- You have a history of severe sunburn, particularly as a child
- You actively tan, including use of solariums
- You work outside
Skin cancer - Spotting a spot
Skin cancers will usually present as a spot, freckle or mole that is visibly different to the skin surrounding it.
It is often a new spot but skin cancer can also be present in a pre-existing spot that has changed colour, size or shape.
It is important that you see a dermatologist if you have any marks or spots on your skin that are:
- Changing shape
- Bleeding or itching
Types of skin cancer
Skin cancers attack the cells that comprise our skin - the basal cells, squamous cells and melanocytes.
There are three main types of skin cancer:
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
This is the most common type of skin cancer which develops slowly over months or even years. BCCs are predominantly related to cumulative sun exposure, together with some genetic factors. Ifleft untreated it can damage surrounding tissues and organs.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
A less common but faster growing cancer it can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.
This is the least common of the skin cancers but is the most dangerous and causes the most deaths. Melanomas detected early can often be cured. Risk factors for melanoma include genetic factors, the number of moles a person has, sunburns in the past and solarium use. Melanoma can present as a new spot or an existing spot that changes size, colour or shape. It may be a mix of colours.
Tips for checking your skin
The best way to reduce the risk of skin cancer is to undertake regular self examinations (every three months). This way you will be best placed to notice any new or changing spots that you can then get checked by a dermatologist.
Yearly skin checks by a dermatologist are also recommended, particularly for people over 40.
Here are some tips to help you examine your skin on your own:
Face, head and neck
- Systematically check your face, nose, lips, mouth and ears
- Use a comb to part your hair and check your scalp
- Use a handheld mirror to check behind your ears and neck.
- Lift your arms to check your armpits and the sides of your body
- (Women) Lift each breast to check the underside
- With your back to a full length mirror use a handheld mirror to check the back of the shoulders, back, upper arms and lower back.
Arms and hands
- Look at the hands, both the backs and the palms
- Check between the fingers and under the fingernails
- Check wrists and forearms, both the back and front
- Use a large mirror to check all sides of the upper arms, including the underside.
Legs, buttocks and feet
- Use a full length and a hand mirror to check the buttocks and the backs of the legs
- Check the front of the legs
- Sit down and crossing one leg over the other to check the front and sides of the legs, ankles feet, between toes and under toenails
- Cross the other leg over and repeat
- Check the soles of the feet
To diagnose skin cancer a thorough physical examination is completed and if required, a biopsy is performed by a GP or a dermatologist. A biopsy involves part, or all, of the skin lesion being removed and examined at a laboratory to identify if cancer is present and if so, which type.
Treatment plans will take into account your age, health, location of the tumour, size and type of the cancer.
Treatment options include:
- Scraping (curettage)
- Prescription creams
Read more about skin cancer.
Read more about melanoma.