What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer develops when your skin cells are damaged by ultraviolet (UV) from the sun. In Australia it is estimated that two out of three people will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70. The incidence of skin cancer in Australia is the highest in the world with skin cancer rates being two to three times higher than the UK, USA and Canada.

More than 750,000 Australians are treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers a year. Non-melanoma skin cancers are more common on men than women. Over 12,000 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma in 2013 with over 2,000 people dying from skin cancer in 2014. Of these skin cancer deaths, over 1,400 deaths were from melanoma skin cancers.

What types of skin cancer are there?

The three different types of skin cancer include:

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)
  • Melanoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) develops in the basal cells (the lowest layer of the skin) and is the most common type of skin cancer that usually occurs on the upper body. This type of skin cancer is usually red and slightly raised with scaly areas that over time can become ulcerated. If these areas get knocked they can bleed.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) develops in the squamous cells (the upper layer of the skin). If this type of skin cancer is not treated quickly, it will grow and spread over a period of weeks or months. Usually this skin cancer forms on skin that has been exposed to the sun, including the head, hands, forearms and neck. Squamous Cell Carcinoma looks like thickened, red and scaly spots.

Melanoma is the most life threatening type of skin cancer and is usually associated with a history of sunburns. It is important to note that even mild sunburn can lead to skin cell damage that results in melanoma developing.

Melanoma appears as a new or existing spot, mole or freckle that changes shape, colour and size. It usually has smudgy, irregular outlines and can be more than one colour. While melanoma develops over a period of weeks to months, if it is caught early, it is usually curable. If melanoma spreads to other parts of your body, a cure is very difficult.

What causes skin cancer?

With the highest skin cancer rates in the world, anyone living in Australia can be at risk of developing skin cancer. Most skin cancers are caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun. The risk of developing skin cancer increases as you age.

Skin cancer causes include:

  • Sunburn
  • Tanning, and
  • Solariums

Sunburn

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer with 95% of melanomas caused by sunburn. In Australia, it is estimated that at least 1 in 8 adults and 1 in 5 teenagers get sunburnt during an average summer weekend.

It is important to note that sunburn can occur on cooler or overcast days. Even if the temperature is cool, UV radiation can still damage your skin. Sun exposure that doesn’t result in burning can still cause damage to skin cells and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Research shows that regular exposure to UV radiation as you age can lead to skin cancer.

Tanning

Many Australians still refer to a ‘healthy tan’ as a symbol of good health and wellbeing. It is important to note that skin tanning is a sign that you have been exposed to enough UV radiation to damage your skin. This sun damage eventually results in loss of elasticity (leading to wrinkles and fine lines) wrinkles), sagging skin, yellow and brown patches and discolouration to appear on your skin.

Solariums

While commercial solariums have been banned in all states in Australia, some people are still using them. Studies show that people who use a solarium before the age of 35 have a 59% greater risk of melanoma than people who have not used solariums

What are the symptoms of skin cancer?

The quicker a skin cancer is recognised and treated, the better your chance of avoiding surgery, potential disfigurement or even death (in the case of melanoma).
To pick up any changes in your skin that may suggest a skin cancer, it is important to become familiar with the look of your skin. The ABCDE system of skin cancer checks is helpful:

  • Asymmetry: are your spots, moles and freckles asymmetrical or symmetrical?
  • Border: are the edges of the spots blurred, notched, ragged or irregular?
  • Colour: does the colour of the spot look the same all over?
  • Diameter: is the spot larger than 6mm across? Is it growing larger?
  • Evolution and evaluation: has the spot enlarged in shape or size in a matter of weeks?

How is skin cancer treated?

If you have a skin cancer, they are almost always removed. However, if you have a more advanced skin cancer, you may need to have some of the surrounding tissue removed. This will ensure that all cancerous cells have been removed. If you need surgery to remove a skin cancer it will usually be performed under a local anaesthetic.

Common skin cancers can also be treated using:

  • Ointments
  • Radiotherapy
  • Cryotherapy (freezing the cancer off using liquid nitrogen)
  • Cautery (burning the cancer off)

Depending on the skin cancer treatment you have had, your treatment team may comprise a number of medical staff including a:

  • General Practitioner
  • Dermatologist – a doctor who specialises in preventing, diagnosing and treating skin diseases
  • Surgeon – this may be a general surgeon or a surgical oncologist that manages complex skin cancers. If the skin cancer has spread, you may also need a plastic surgeon trained in complex constructive techniques.

How can skin cancer be prevented?

If you are living in Australia, it is very important that you become familiar with your skin on your entire body – not just the parts that are exposed to the sun.

  • UV levels are most intense during the middle of the day. If the UV Index is forecast to be 3 or above, it is important to:
  • Slip – on sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
  • Slop – on SPF (Sun Protection Factor) 30+ sunscreen. Make sure it is broad spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays) and is water resistant. Sunscreen needs to be applied 20 minutes before you go outdoors and reapplied every two hours. It is very important that using sunscreen does not extend the time you spend in the sun.
  • Slap – on a broad-brimmed hat that will protect your face, neck, head, and ears.
  • Seek – shade.
  • Slide on some sunglasses – make sure they meet Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1067:2003.

Do you have a spot, mole or freckle that you are worried about? Contact us here for a skin cancer consultation.