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Do you really know what skin cancer looks like?
Australia is blessed with beautiful beaches, rainforests and national parks. However, our love for the great outdoors can have its drawbacks – especially if we don’t protect our skin from the harsh elements – particularly the sun.
Did you know? The rates of skin cancer in this country are the highest in the world. In fact, our numbers are two to three times those of Canada and the UK. What’s more, around 80% of cancers that have been newly diagnosed are skin cancer.
So, while the Australian Government has spent millions of dollars raising awareness on what can be a dangerous disease, there are still many people who aren’t very familiar on the basics of skin cancer including, what does cancerous skin look like?
Let’s start with the basics…
What is skin cancer?
Overexposure to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can damage skin cells and cause them to grow abnormally which then
develops into skin cancer.
Older people are more susceptible to getting skin cancer especially if they have very fair or even freckled skin. And if there’s a family history, the chances are even higher. But that’s not to say young people don’t also get skin cancers. In fact, the Melanoma Institute Australia reports that melanoma is the most common cancer in Australians aged 20-39. The good news is that most skin cancers can be treated successfully – particularly if you detect them early.
“Did you know 80% of cancers that are newly diagnosed each year are skin cancer?”
The three types of skin cancer to look out for
The most common cancers in Australia are the non-melanoma skin cancers – also known as keratinocyte cancers. Most are not life-threatening and come in two main varieties:
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
This accounts for about 70% of non-melanoma skin cancers. They mostly appear on areas of the body that get high or intermittent skin exposure, like the head, face, shoulders, back and neck.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
Making up about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers, this type typically begins on the areas of skin that get the most exposure to the sun like the head, neck, hands, lower legs and forearms. An SCC can also grow quickly over the course of a few weeks or months.
This is considered the most dangerous form of skin cancer. It grows from cells named melanocytes which are the cells that give skin its colour. Melanoma is the most serious because of its ability to spread quickly in the body – also known as ‘metastasise’. In 2022, it was estimated that 17,700 cases of melanoma were diagnosed in Australia.
What does skin cancer look like?
The visual appearance of skin cancer isn’t necessarily a mole that may look a little strange or misshapen. Some cancers can first appear as an area of scaly skin or as a spot or even a lump. However, it’s important to note that any moles you see changing colour, shape and size over time must be checked out.
Of course, prevention is always better than cure, so if you notice a mole or area of your skin that looks different that it did yesterday or last month, it’s always a good idea to see your GP.
In some cases, skin cancers can also bleed and be very tender to the touch because of the inflammation.
Visual signs to look out for:
- A change in size, shape and colour
- Sensitive to touch.
“Skin cancer can be spots, moles or scaly areas of skin that change in colour, shape and size over time.”
Checking your moles can be as easy as ABCDE
Keeping the letters ABCDE in your mind when checking your skin can help you remember the important warning signs of skin cancers.
- Asymmetry — the edges around the spot or mole appear uneven
- Border — there are ‘jagged lines’ or spreading of the moles or spots
- Colours — uneven or patchy in colour
- Diameter — spots or moles that grow larger in size
- Evolution — can you see them changing over time?
If one or more of these characteristics match what you see on your skin, the next course of action is to see your GP. They’ll be able to advise you on next steps. If the doctor agrees that a spot looks suspicious, they’ll either perform a biopsy, or refer you for one. This involves removing part of, or the whole spot, and sending it away for testing.
What are the treatments?
For a lot of cases, the complete surgical removal of the cancerous mole or spot is the most common treatment, using a local anaesthetic. And some cancers can be totally removed during surgery. However, if your specialist finds cancer cells at the margin of your spot or mole, they may advise you to have more treatment.
Depending on your diagnosis, your GP may also suggest other treatments like:
- Topical treatments such as creams, lotions or gels.
- Cryotherapy where liquid nitrogen is used to freeze and remove some small BCCs.
- Radiation therapy to destroy cancers on areas not suitable for surgery like the face or lips.
For more detailed information on other skin cancer treatments, speak with your GP or specialist.
“The good news is that most skin cancers can be successfully treated if they’re detected early enough.”
What can you do to prevent skin cancer?
There are many things you can do to prevent a skin cancer diagnosis – and it begins with making sun protection a priority in your life when you’re outdoors.
You can protect your skin from potentially harmful UV radiation by following these ‘catchy’ but important guidelines:
- Slip on sun-protective clothing that covers exposed areas of skin on your shoulders, legs, neck, arms and body.
- Slop on a good quality, water resistant sunscreen with an SPF 30+ rating.
- Slap on a hat to keep your face, neck and ears out of the sun.
- Seek under trees and umbrellas – keep out of direct sunlight.
- Slide on wrap-around sunglasses that shield your eyes.
- Stay away from dangerous levels of UV radiation emitted by sun lamps, solariums or sunbeds.
Keep your skin healthy with regular spot checks and good sun protection
Loving the great outdoors is in our Aussie nature – so this isn’t about missing out on all the beauty of our sunburnt country. You can still enjoy a good dose of Vitamin D by making sure you cover up, use plenty of broad-spectrum sunscreen and check your skin regularly.
While skin cancer is not entirely preventable, routine checks are crucial for the early detection of skin cancer. If caught early, the chances of successful treatment are estimated to be as high as 95%.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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