Skin cancer is an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the skin, causing a tumour.
There are two main types of skin cancer: non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) and melanoma. Around 430,000 Australians are treated each year for NMSC, and there are over 10,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year. Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer but it is curable if found early.
Your skin is made up of three layers:
Cancer can start from cells in any of these layers.
NMSC mostly occurs in areas of your body that are exposed to the sun, such as your head or neck. There are different types of NMSC, which are named after the cells they form from. The most common types are found in the top layer of your skin (the epidermis).
Melanoma is an overgrowth of the cells known as melanocytes. These cells make a pigment called melanin when your skin is exposed to the sun. Melanoma can spread to other parts of your body (through your blood or lymph system) where it may grow and form secondary tumours. This spreading is called metastasis.
Melanoma affects slightly more women than men. The most common place for women to develop melanoma is on their legs; for men, it's on their chest or back.
Skin cancer is often painless and each type can look different.
Symptoms that may indicate skin cancer include any mole, spot, lump or patch that:
These symptoms aren't always caused by skin cancer, but if you have them, see your GP.
The causes of skin cancer aren't fully understood at present. But there are certain factors that make skin cancer more likely. The main risk factor for any type of skin cancer is over-exposure to sunlight.
You may also be more likely to get skin cancer if you:
Age is also a factor – NMSCs are more common in people over 60 but are rare in children under 14.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask about your medical history. Your GP may refer you to a dermatologist (a doctor who specialises in skin conditions) to have further tests including those listed below.
Your treatment will depend on your age, the type of skin cancer you have, where it is and whether it has spread.
There are a number of treatments for skin cancer, which are described below. Your doctor will advise you on which is best for you.
There are different methods of surgically removing skin cancer depending on the type of skin cancer you have.
Your surgeon will aim to remove the cancer and some of the healthy skin surrounding it. The amount of healthy skin that is removed will vary depending on the type of cancer and how deep it is in your skin. For NMSC, the amount of healthy skin removed varies between 4 and 6 mm. Melanoma is removed with a small margin of healthy skin. This skin is analysed in a laboratory and if it's found that not all of the cancer has been removed, a further margin of healthy skin is removed around the scar.
Your surgeon may also remove some of your lymph nodes if they’re found to be cancerous or if they want to check that they’re healthy.
There are several different types of non-surgical treatment for skin cancer, including the following.
To reduce your risk of skin cancer, always take care in the sun and don't let your skin burn. If you're spending longer than a few minutes out in the sun between 10am and 3pm or if the UV index is 3 or higher you should protect yourself as follows.
Don’t use sunbeds if you want to reduce your risk of skin cancer. If you notice any changes in your skin, visit your GP as soon as possible.
Balance sun protection against skin cancer with maintaining healthy vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones and muscles. The body requires UV radiation to manufacture vitamin D as there are not many natural food sources of this vitamin.
It is important not to forgo wearing sunscreen during peak UV times due to concerns about vitamin D deficiency. Most people in Australia will achieve adequate vitamin D levels through their usual day-to-day activities. Only a few minutes of sun exposure to the face, arms and hands (or equivalent skin area) is required on most days in summer outside of peak UV times to generate sufficient vitamin D in the body for a fair-skinned person.
The amount of exposure needed for healthy vitamin D levels will vary, partly depending on your skin type (darker skin requires longer exposure), the time of year and which state you are in. For more details about this, visit the Cancer Council Australia website noted in the further information section of this factsheet.
To check the UV levels in your area and the times of the day that sun protection is required, consult your state’s Cancer Council website for their UV Alert. Also look out for the SunSmart UV Alert in the weather pages of most daily newspapers. You can also download the free Cancer Council SunSmart app for smartphones.
For more information see the health page on Sun protection.
Australasian College of Dermatologists
Cancer Council Australia
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Australian Department of Health and Ageing. Skin cancer: key statistics. [online] Canberra: Australian Department of Health and Ageing. [Last updated June 2011, accessed 27 February 2012]. Available from: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/skincancer/publishing.nsf/Content/fact-2
Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society, Endocrine Society of Australia and Osteoporosis Australia working Group. Vitamin D and adult bone health: Position statement. MJA 2005; 182: 281-85.
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Last published: 31 March 2012
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