Skin cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the skin.

Your skin is the largest organ in the body. You cannot live without your skin because it protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection Skin controls body temperature, manufactures vitamin D and stores water and fat.

The skin has 2 main layers: The outer layer (the epidermis) and the inner layer (the dermis). Under the skin is fat.

Skin cancer begins in cells of the epidermis. Different types of skin cancers can occur anywhere in the body.  So skin cancer can occur in skin that exposed to sunlight (UV light). More importantly skin cancer may be found in places on the body never exposed to sunlight. So this is why a full body skin check is essential for screening for skin cancer.

Did you know?

2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70. Over 90% of skin cancers are caused by exposure the sun, however skin cancer can affect anyone and can occur anywhere on the body.

Queensland has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with around 3000 melanomas and 133,000 non-melanoma skin cancers diagnosed every year. It often is without symptoms until is at an advanced stage and it is curable if found early. A regular yearly check is recommended unless you are at high risk of developing skin cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the types of skin cancers?

BCC (basal cell carcinoma) and SCC (squamous cell carcinoma) are the most common types of skin cancers

Melanoma is less common.

Other skin cancers can occur but are less common still.

What about other spots?

Your skin will have white, red and brown spots, freckles, moles, various “sunspots” and lumps and bumps as well

Make sure to tell your doctor about any spots or moles that you are concerned about because they are sore, changing, abnormal, or new.

How can I detect skin cancer?

In addition to your self-check a yearly full skin examination by an experienced skin cancer doctor is recommended.

You may need more frequent skin examination if you are at higher risk of developing skin cancer. The frequency of recommended skin examinations will be discussed with the doctor at the time of the consultation.

There is no specific thing that you can look for but ASCP recommends a SCAN guide.

  1. Sore – is the spot sore? Does it take longer than 6 weeks to heal?
  2. Changing – is the spot changing in size, shape or colour?
  3. Abnormal – does the spot look or feel different when compared to other spots? Does it stand out as being of concern?
  4. New – is it a new spot on your body?

What is the difference between a mole and a melanoma?

Most melanomas come from normal skin not just pre-existing moles.

There are different types of melanoma and melanoma can vary greatly in the way it looks.

In people who have lots of moles, melanoma usually stands out and looks different from the other moles. The first sign is often a NEW SPOT or a Change in an EXISTING MOLE.

  • Size – The spot may appear or grow larger.
  • Colour – The mole may become increasingly blotchy with different depth and shades of colour (brown, black, blue, red, white, light grey, pink or skin-coloured).
  • Shape or border – The spot may increase in height, become scaly, have an irregular edge (scalloped or notched) or lack symmetry (the halves look different).
  • Itching or bleeding – The mole may itch or bleed at times.
  • Elevation – the spot may start as a raised nodule or develop a raised area, which are often reddish or reddish brown.

New moles can appear during childhood and through to the 30s and 40s, as well as during pregnancy. However, adults should see their doctor to get a new mole examined, particularly if it is noticeably different from other moles or is raised, firm and growing. Even if you have had a mole checked before and it was considered benign, it is important to regularly check your skin for any change in shape, size or colour in the future. Talk to your doctor immediately about any changes.

Are you at risk of skin cancer?

1 in 2 Australians will have a skin cancer in their lifetime.

Anyone can get skin cancer, but the risk is higher in certain circumstances.

  • Age over 40 years old
  • A lighter natural skin color. Blond or red hair, blue or green colored eyes
  • Fair and freckled skin that burns or reddens quickly and does not tan with sun exposure
  • Outdoor workers
  • Previous multiple sunburns or excess sun exposure in your youth.
  • A large number of moles or certain types of moles (dysplastic naevi)
  • A family history of melanoma or any other skin cancer.
  • A personal history of skin cancer (including melanoma) or sun spots     
  • Any new spot that has appeared or grown or changed.                                                                                                             
  • A weakened immune system caused by taking certain medications (like immunosuppressant drugs after organ transplantation) or being HIV positive.
  • Past use of solariums or tanning beds
I’m over 40 years of age

Skin cancer affects all ages. Melanoma is the most common cancer in Australians aged 15 to 39. The risk of melanoma and other skin cancers increases aver the age of 40.

I have fair skin and light eyes.

People with olive, Asian or very dark skin naturally have more protection against skin cancer because their skin produces more melanin than fair-skinned people. If you have fair skin, blue eyes, or light or red hair, you are at higher risk of skin cancer.

I work outdoors and I’ve been sunburnt may times in the past.

UV (sunlight) is responsible for 90% of all skin cancers. If you work outdoors or are often outside you are exposed to UV that permanently damages your skin. A tan does not indicate good health it is merely your skins response to injury. Your skin forms melanin to protect it form UV rays. Every time you tan you increase your risk of getting skin cancer.

In Australia, one in eight adults and one in five teenagers are sunburnt on an average summer weekend.

The risk of developing skin cancer doubles if you have had multiple sunburns that blistered or peeled. Protection from ultraviolet light is important all year, not just during the summer or at the beach.

UV rays from the sun can reach you on cloudy and hazy days, not just on bright and sunny days. UV rays also reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. Reducing your exposure to UV rays will keep your skin healthy and lower your chances of getting skin cancer in the future.

I have a large number of moles and a family history of melanoma

You have a higher risk of melanoma if you have many moles on your skin.

While most skin cancers result from sun exposure, some melanomas develop due to an inherited gene. Your risk may be higher if someone in your family has had melanoma.

I have had melanoma and/or skin cancers in the past.

If you have had one skin cancer in the past you are at higher risk of developing further skin cancers. A history of skin cancer indicates that your skin might be prone usually from excessive sun damage or due to a genetic disposition.

I have noticed a new spot on the skin and it is growing, bleeding or changing

A mole could be a melanoma if it is changing in size, shape or colour, or looks different to the others on your body. A sign of skin cancer can be a persistent sore that may itch or bleed intermittently.

It is important to become familiar with your own skin and notice any sores that won’t heal, small red or white lumps, or new freckles that appear or change over weeks or months.

How to protect your skin?

The damaging effects of UV radiation are permanent, so prevention is better than a cure. There are many steps you can take to be sun safe:

The slip, slop, slap Skin Cancer Council of Australia campaign has made us all aware of our sun protection options.

  • Stay out of the sun between 11:00am and 3:00pm, as this is when UV radiation is highest.
  • Seek shade whenever possible.
  • Apply SPF 30+ sunscreen 20 minutes before you go outside.
  • Wear protective clothing, including:
    • a broad-brimmed hat that covers your whole head, ears and neck;
    • a shirt with a collar and long sleeves
  • Wear sunglasses that meet the Australian standard.

What is UV Radiation?

Most skin cancers are caused by over exposure to UV light from the sun. Only a small number of skin cancers are related to a genetic predisposition.

The sun emits different kinds of radiation:

  • Sunlight that you can see and feel as heat
  • Infrared radiation that you can feel as heat
  • Ultraviolet radiation that you cannot see or feel.

UV radiation is what causes eye damage, sunburn and skin cancers. It cannot be seen or felt, which means it can be harmful even on cool or cloudy days when people are less likely to use sun protection. The level of UV radiation varies depending on the time of year and day, altitude, proximity to the equator, and the reflection level (from snow, ice, water, sand or cement for example.)

There are three types of UV radiation:

  • UVA radiation goes deep into the skin, causing long-term damage like wrinkles and cancer.
  • UVB radiation affects the top layer of the skin, causing sunburn, skin damage and skin cancer.
  • UVC radiation that does not reach the Earth’s surface because it is absorbed by ozone and oxygen in the atmosphere.

Vitamin D & Skin cancer has a right balance.

Too much UV exposure causes skin damage and can lead to cancer, while not enough UV exposure puts you at risk of vitamin D deficiency.

Vitamin D controls calcium levels in the body and is needed for healthy bones, muscles and teeth.

Ten minutes of daily sun exposure is enough.

The body can only store a limited amount of vitamin D at a time, so once you’ve received enough UV exposure, spending more time in the sun will only increase your risk of skin cancer.

The lighter your skin, the less sunlight is needed to reach your daily vitamin D intake.

Sunscreen does not block Vitamin D absorption

What is the difference between different sunscreens?

There are 2 types of sunscreens available.

Why do skin cancers come back?

Sometimes, cancer can come back.A cancer that comes back is called a recurrent cancer.

Skin cancer treatment aims to remove the skin cancer but sometimes a skin cancer can recur, even if it was completely removed before.

This happens years later or may happen sooner.

Some cancer types have a higher risk of coming back and if the cancer comes back in the same area of the body it is called a local recurrence.

Your doctor will talk to you about the risk of the cancer coming back.

Most people have follow-up appointments with their cancer doctor for months, or years, after treatment.

Skin cancer can come back in a different area of the body and this is called secondary or metastatic cancer.

If cancer comes back as a metastatic cancer then, it is often possible to treat it again. Repeat treatment may aim to cure the cancer (curative) or keep it under control. (palliative)