Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in Australia: every year, more than 13,000 Aussies are diagnosed with melanoma — and around 980,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancers are treated.1
Skin cancer is mostly preventable – and as an external cancer, lends itself to visual diagnosis at a much earlier stage than other cancers.
The earlier skin cancer is found, the easier it is to successfully treat.2 This article outlines the three main types of skin cancer – the symptoms, diagnosis process, and treatments available – and how you can reduce your risk of getting any form of skin cancer in the first place.
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Skin cancer is a disease that occurs when your skin cells grow abnormally. This is usually due to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or sunbeds2, or in some cases, due to inherited genetic factors 3.
This uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells forms a tumour in the skin. Many skin lesions are benign (non-cancerous), but unfortunately some are malignant (cancerous), this means the tumour consists of malignant cells with the potential to spread to other parts of the body…and become life-threatening.
The 3 main skin cancer types
There are three main types of skin cancer – which are named according to the cells in which they form.
Melanoma is the fastest-growing and most dangerous kind of skin cancer, while basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma (also known as‘non-melanoma’ or‘keratinocyte’ cancers) are more common but usually less life-threatening.
Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas often grow locally, and they can affect almost any part of the body. Most of the time they appear on the body parts that are normally exposed to the sun.
Melanoma is the more severe as it can spread at a much earlier stage.
What's my skin cancer risk?
Answer six simple questions (takes less than 1 minute) to discover your risk and the right skin check for you.
Unlike most cancers, skin cancer can usually be ‘seen’ on the top layer of the skin – making it easier to detect and treat it early.
To get a general idea of what skin cancer can look like, it can be helpful to look at photos. There are many images and photos of skin cancers available online; this gallery from the Skin Cancer Foundation is just one example.
But it’s important that you do not try to make a self-diagnosis this way. You could have something on your skin that ‘doesn’t look like any of the pictures’ – but it’s still skin cancer. Skin cancers can look very different from person to person.
The only way to diagnose it properly is to get your skin checked by a qualified skin cancer expert.
Read on to learn more about the three main skin cancer types.
Melanoma grows from cells called melanocytes — cells that give your skin its colour. It’s the least common of the three main forms of skin cancer (accounting for only one to two per cent of cases) but it’s considered the most serious because it can spread (metastasise) throughout the body very quickly – and once it penetrates below the surface of the skin it can soon become deadly.
Survival rate is largely dependent on the thickness (depth) of melanoma – in general, the thinner the lesion, the better the outcome. For example, a person diagnosed with a melanoma less than 1mm thick can expect to have a 92% ten-year survival rate.4
However, if it’s not detected until it’s greater than 4mm thick, the ten-year survival rate reduces to 50% — which is why it’s so vital to detect melanoma early. Find out more about how to spot the early signs of melanoma.
What are the signs of melanoma?
There are four main types of melanoma, including nodular melanoma, which is particularly dangerous as it grows very fast and needs early diagnosis and removal. The most obvious warning signs are any changes to your moles or spots, or any new moles that appear suddenly.
The ABCDE and EFG rules are handy guides for self-checking your skin – it’s a good idea to get to know them so you can recognise the early signs of melanoma. If you notice any variations such as a change in size, shape or colour, it could suggest a melanoma may be developing.
Another useful acronym is SCAN – which stands for sore, changing, abnormal or new. Find out more at scanyourskin.
And if you think you have any melanoma symptoms, we recommend booking a Full Body MoleMap (our most comprehensive service).
How is melanoma diagnosed and treated?
If melanoma is suspected, a biopsy of the lesion (mole or spot) will be taken and any nearby lymph nodes will also be checked. The samples are then sent for testing to confirm whether the lesion is a melanoma.
Melanomas are graded according to how far they have spread throughout the body:
Stage 0‑II refers to early melanoma (usually treatable with removal of the mole and surrounding skin).
Stage III melanoma (regional) has spread to nearby lymph nodes, skin or tissues.
Stage IV melanoma (advanced or metastatic) means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Treatments for Stages III and IV melanoma may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or targeted therapies (which modify the actions of specific genes) and immunotherapies (which modify the actions of the immune system). You can read more about treatment options here.
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer in the world, accounting for about 70% of non-melanoma skin cancers. BCC begins in basal cells, which are located in lower layer of cells of the epidermis (the top, outer layer of the skin). This type of skin cancer tends to grow slowly, and rarely spreads to other parts of the body.
BCCs can appear anywhere on the body but most commonly develops on parts of the body that receive high or intermittent sun exposure (head, face, neck, arms, shoulders and back).8 They often appear as a change in the skin, such as a growth or a sore that doesn’t heal. Basal cell carcinoma is particularly common in older males, but it can also affect females and younger adults.9
Long-term sun damage is a risk factor, and so is repeated sunburn or sunbed use. Having fair skin increases your risk, although it can also affect those with darker skin too.
While BCC is very common, particularly in countries like Australia and New Zealand, very few people die from it as it’s usually treatable – as long as it’s detected early. However, a tiny proportion of this type of skin cancer can grow rapidly, invade deeply, and/or metastasise to local lymph nodes.10
What are the signs of basal cell carcinoma?
Symptoms of BCC may include:
waxy small raised lesions (papules) with a depressed centre
Ulcer-like appearance or pearl-like and translucent
A tendency to bleed
Red and scaly, oozing or crusted areas
Black-blue or brown areas
Basal cell carcinoma can vary in diameter from a few millimetres to several centimetres. Having one BCC increases the risk of getting another – it’s possible to have more than one BCC at the same time on different parts of the body.
If you’re concerned you might have a basal cell carcinoma, book a skin checks for a professional diagnosis.
Diagnosis and treatment of basal cell carcinoma
Like all kinds of skin cancer, the earlier a basal cell carcinoma is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. If left untreated, it can grow deeper into the skin and damage nearby tissue, making treatment more difficult.11
The treatment for a BCC depends on its type, size and location, the number to be treated, patient factors, and the preference or expertise of the doctor. Most BCCs are treated surgically. Regular, long-term monitoring is recommended to check for new and recurring lesions – and to catch them early when they’re easier to treat.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common skin cancer, accounting for about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers.6
SCC develops in the squamous cells (which make up the middle and outer layers of the skin). It usually appears where the skin has had the most sun exposure, such as the scalp, ears, lips or the backs of hands, but it can occur anywhere on the body. It tends to grow quickly on the skin over several weeks or months.
Squamous cell carcinoma is not usually life threatening, but it can be more dangerous than basal cell carcinoma, because of its ability to grow bigger and/or spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.7
This type of skin cancer usually results from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, either from sunlight or from using sunbeds, so avoiding UV light helps reduce your risk.
What are the signs of squamous cell carcinoma?
When self-checking your skin (or the skin of a loved one), look for:
A firm, red nodule
A flat sore with a scaly crust
A new sore or raised area on an old scar or ulcer
A rough, scaly patch on your lip that may evolve to an open sore
A red sore or rough patch inside your mouth
A red, raised patch or wart-like sore on or in the anus or on the genitals
Worried you might have a squamous cell carcinoma? Book a skin check for a professional opinion.
How is squamous cell carcinoma treated?
Treatment for SCC depends on the type, size, location and depth of the lesion, as well as your age and overall health. A wide range of treatments is available these days, including excision, Mohs surgery, cryosurgery, electro-surgery or laser surgery, radiation therapy and topical medications.8
Ask your dermatologist or doctor to clearly explain the options that might work best for you, including details about the risks and benefits.
Other types of skin cancer
Another less common group of non-melanoma lesions are called‘keratinocyte dysplasias’. These include solar keratosis, Bowenoid keratosis and squamous cell carcinoma in-situ (Bowen’s disease).
While these are not invasive cancers, they may require treatment as some can develop into non-melanoma skin cancers. If you think you may have symptoms of any of these skin cancers, book a skin check for a professional diagnosis, or talk to your doctor.
Knowing your risk, can reduce your risk
We all have a different level of skin cancer and melanoma risk, depending on a range of factors, such as our age, skin colour, family history and lifestyle. The 7 most common risk factors include:
You have fair skin, blue eyes and blond or red hair
You’re aged 50 or older – around 70% of melanoma cases occur in people aged 50 plus.11
You have a family or personal history of melanoma or other skin cancer.
You’ve been sunburnt — getting sunburnt at any age increases the risk of all skin cancers, including melanoma, in later life.12
You lead an outdoor lifestyle and spend a lot of time in the sun.
Take this quick risk quiz to see whether you have a high, moderate or low risk of skin cancer. And take steps to reduce your risk by getting to know the risk factors of skin cancer in more detail.
How can you reduce your risk of all types of skin cancer?
First of all, always protect your skin when you’re outside – even if it’s just for a few minutes. Stay out of the harshest sunlight in the middle of the day (especially between 10am to 4pm in daylight savings months) and cover up with a broad-spectrum SPF30+ sunscreen, loose clothing, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses when you’re out and about.
Get in the habit of self-checking your skin regularly – at least every six months and more often if you’re moderate to high risk. Get to know your skin like the back of your hand (literally!) and use a hand-held mirror to check all areas, freckles and moles – or even better, get someone to check those hard-to-reach spots for you.
And remember, early detection is your best protection against all types of skin cancer. If you notice any changes or new spots, or a mole just doesn’t look or feel right, see your doctor or book an expert mole check or a skin check as soon as possible.
At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.