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Skin Cancer

Approximately 500,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer each year. It killed 2,500 Australians in 2018 (The National road toll was 1166). The majority of these deaths were due to melanoma.

Most of these deaths are preventable. Malignant melanoma is a deadly skin cancer (if not treated early) because it spreads rapidly. The deaths result from the common types of cancer when they have either grown too large or have spread throughout the body.

Many Australians need not die every year.

Exposure to sunlight especially in childhood and adolescence is the number one factor causing skin cancer.

A history of severe sunburn increases the risk of developing melanoma, and long-term sun exposure increases the risks of both non-melanoma skin cancer and melanoma.

Fair-skinned Australians are in the highest risk group of developing skin cancers, however, Australians with olive complexions are certainly not immune to the problem.

Other statistics:

  • Males are more likely to develop melanoma than females, but for both sexes, this equals approximately 10% of all newly diagnosed cancers each year.
  • The incidence of newly diagnosed melanoma is on the rise worldwide also, but it is falling in under 30 year olds in Australia.
  • Medicare records show there were over 900,000 treatments for SCC and BCC in 2016 – more than 2,500 skin cancer treatments every day.

Types of Skin Cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) and Malignant Melanoma (MM). There are also solar keratoses, which are pre-cancerous skin growths.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

BCC is the most common type of skin cancer. The development of BCCs tends to be quite slow, taking months to years, and hardly ever do these cancers spread throughout the body. BCCs most commonly appear on the face, head, neck and trunk regions, but can occur anywhere on the body. They can occur in difficult to treat areas such as near the eye and on the lower legs. In most cases, they can be cured leaving excellent cosmetic results.

There are many different types of BCCs and the type that presents as a firm red or red-greyish lump which may bleed from time to time is perhaps the commonest.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

SCC is another common form of skin cancer which typically grows much faster than BCC.

SCCs usually manifests as a scaly, quickly growing pink lump which may also break down and ulcerate. They most commonly occur in exposed areas such as the face and back of the hands. Surgical treatment will usually be curative if diagnosed in its early stages. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential as SCCs may spread to other parts of the body. 

Malignant Melanoma (MM)

This is the least common but most dangerous skin cancer.

Like SCCs and BCCs, MMs may occur on exposed skin, but can also occur on skin that is generally covered, but which has been sunburnt in the past. Though uncommon, MM may occur in areas that have never been sun-exposed. MMs may develop from an existing mole or appear as a new brown, red or black spot which changes and grows in size. Fortunately, if diagnosed early, most melanomas can be cured with surgical treatment alone. 

Solar Keratoses or Actinic Keratoses

Solar keratoses, (often called ‘sunspots’), are red, scaling areas of skin on parts of the body which are frequently exposed to sunlight. Most notably they occur on the face, ears, neck, forearms and hands. They vary in size from 2mm to 20mm in diameter. They are not painful or itchy but may sting when exposed to sunlight or if they are rubbed or scratched.

Solar keratoses are not skin cancers but, occasionally, over time, they may develop into a squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). They generally develop in response to long years of exposure to the sun and become more common with increasing age. Solar keratoses indicate intensely sun-damaged skin and are a warning sign that the skin is prone to cancer.

Clues to the presence of Skin Cancer

There are a number of changes which might lead one to suspect the presence of a skin cancer. These are:

  • Change in colour, edges, or shape of an existing mole
  • A spot which bleeds from time to time, seemingly to heal between episodes
  • Development of an unexplained lump or persistent red area in the skin
  • Development of a new brown red or black spot
  • A “blind pimple” that doesn’t heal
  • Development of an unexplained lump (visible or palpable)
  • A persistent red and/or scaling area in the skin
  • A recurrent “sore”, often healing itself between episodes