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Understanding Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer globally, but it is also one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer when detected early. Common signs include a spot that looks and feels different from others on the skin; a spot that has changed size, shape, colour or texture; a sore that doesn’t heal within a few weeks; or a sore that is itchy or bleeds​.

The three main types of skin cancer are :basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. 

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

SCC usually appears on parts of the body most frequently exposed to the sun, such as head, hands and lower legs, but it can occur anywhere on the skin. It can form metastases, particularly those on the face, ears and scalp. Although superficial sub-types of SCC can be treated by cryotherapy or cautery, the majority need excision, generally with a slightly wider margin than that needed for BCC.SCC tends to grow quickly over several weeks or months.


Although melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer, it is considered the most serious because it grows quickly and is more likely to spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, brain and bones, especially if not found early. The earlier melanoma is found, the more successful treatment is likely to be.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

BCCs can range in appearance from a small reddish rash to a pearly pink lump. They can also be pigmented (dark), resemble a sore that doesn’t heal, or even look like a scar. They generally don’t metastasise (break off and form distant tumours or secondaries) and are easily treated, especially if found early. Treatment can range from cryotherapy (freezing) for superficial types, through to excision (surgery) for deeper tumours. Some superficial sub-types may respond to a topical cream.

Who is at risk of skin cancer ?

In Australia, several factors contribute to an individual's risk of developing skin cancer. These risk factors include:

  1. Fair Skin Type: People with fair or coloured skin. Fair-skinned individuals have less natural protection against UV radiation compared to those with darker skin tones.

  2. UV Exposure: Australia has high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation due to its location close to the equator, thinning ozone layer, and outdoor lifestyle. Prolonged exposure to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources (such as tanning beds) increases the risk of skin cancer.

  3. History of Sunburn: Experiencing sunburn, especially during childhood or adolescence, significantly increases the risk of skin cancer later in life. Sunburn indicates overexposure to UV radiation and damage to the skin cells.

  4. Outdoor Occupation or Activities: People who work or spend a significant amount of time outdoors, such as outdoor workers, farmers, and athletes, are at higher risk of skin cancer due to prolonged sun exposure.

  5. Personal or Family History: Individuals with a personal history of skin cancer, including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, or squamous cell carcinoma, have an increased risk of developing additional skin cancers. 

  6. Presence of Atypical Moles: Having a large number of moles or atypical (dysplastic) moles increases the risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Atypical moles may exhibit irregular borders, asymmetry, uneven coloration, or a larger size compared to normal moles.

  7. Age: While skin cancer can occur at any age, the risk increases with age, especially in older adults who have had prolonged sun exposure over their lifetime.

How do you check skin caner 
self-examination and professional skin checks


The Cancer Council encourages individuals to perform regular self-examinations of their skin to detect any new or changing lesions. This self-examination should be done the entire body, including areas not typically exposed to the sun, such as the scalp, soles of the feet, and between the toesUse a hand mirror to look under your arms and legs. You can use a hand mirror in combination with a bathroom mirror to check your back, or get help from a loved one.

Professional Skin Checks

  • Adults are advised to have a professional skin examination by a skin cancer doctor or dermatologist , if they notice any concerning skin changes during self-examination or have risk factors for skin cancer.

  • High-risk individuals, including those with fair skin, a history of sunburn, a personal or family history of skin cancer, or a large number of moles, may require more frequent professional skin checks. The frequency of screening should be determined in consultation with a skin cancer doctor based on individual risk factors.

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