Information and symptoms of skin cancer

Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the skin.

Types of skin cancer

The three main types of skin cancer are – basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. BCC and SCC are also called non-melanoma skin cancers or keratinocytic cancers.

Rare types of non-melanoma skin cancer include Merkel cell carcinoma and angiosarcoma. They are treated differently from BCC and SCC. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out more about rarer skin cancers.

For more information about melanoma please refer to the Melanoma page.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) starts in the basal cells of the epidermis. It makes up about 70% of non-melanoma skin cancers.

BCCs grow slowly over months and years and rarely spread to other parts of the body. The earlier a BCC 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. Having one BCC increases the risk of getting another. It is possible to have more than one BCC at the same time on different parts of the body.

  • Develops on areas of the body that have more exposure to the sun, such as the head, face, neck, shoulders, lower arms and lower legs, but can occur anywhere on the body.
  • May appear as a pearl-coloured lump or as a slightly scaly area that is shiny and pale or bright pink in colour; some appear darker.
  • May bleed and become inflamed; may appear to heal then become inflamed again.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) starts in the squamous cells of the epidermis. It makes up about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers.

SCC tends to grow quickly over several weeks or months. If left untreated, SCC can spread to other parts of the body. This is known as invasive SCC. SCC on the lips and ears is more likely to spread.

  • Usually appears on parts of the body most often exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands, forearms or lower legs, but can start anywhere on the body.
  • May bleed and become inflamed and is often tender to touch.
  • Often appears as a thickened, red, scaly or crusted spot or rapidly growing lump.
  • Is more common as you get older.

Melanoma

Melanoma starts in the melanocyte cells of the skin. It makes up 1-2% of all skin cancers. Although melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer, it is considered the most serious because it grows quickly and is more likely to spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, brain and bones, especially if it is not found early. The earlier melanoma is found, the more successful treatment is likely to be.

For more information on how melanoma is diagnosed and treated please refer to the Melanoma page.

How common is skin cancer

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australia. About two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70.

Almost 980,000 new cases of BCC and SCC are treated each year. BCC can develop in young people but is more common in people over 40. SCC occurs mostly in people over 50.

More than 13,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma in Australia each year. Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world. For more information about the diagnosis and treatment of melanoma please refer to the Melanoma page.

What are the risk factors

Anyone can develop skin cancer, but it’s more common in older people. The risk is also higher in people who have:

  • Fair or freckled skin, especially if it burns easily and doesn’t tan.
  • Red or fair hair and light-coloured eyes (blue or green).
  • Had short, intense periods of exposure to UV radiation, e.g. on weekends or holidays or when playing sport, especially if it caused sunburn.
  • Actively tanned or used solariums.
  • Worked outdoors.
  • A weakened immune system, which could be caused by taking certain medications after an organ transplant (immunosuppressants) or ongoing blood conditions such as chronic leukaemia.
  • Lots of moles on their body or moles with an irregular shape and uneven colour (dysplastic naevi).
  • A previous skin cancer or family history of skin cancer.
  • Certain skin conditions such as sunspots.

People with olive or very dark skin have more protection against UV radiation because their skin has produces more melanin than fair skin does. However, they can still develop skin cancer.

Diagnosis

If you notice any changes to your skin, your doctor will examine you, looking carefully at any spots you think are unusual.

  • Using a handheld magnifying instrument called a dermoscope to see the spot more closely.
  • Skin biopsy – if it’s difficult to tell the difference between a skin cancer and a non-cancerous spot, the doctor may need to take a tissue sample (biopsy) for examination under a microscope. This will confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy is a quick and simple procedure that is usually performed in the doctors office.

Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Treatment

Skin cancer is treated in different ways. Treatment depends on:

  • The type, size and location of the cancer.
  • Your general health.
  • Any medicines you are taking (these can affect the amount of bleeding and the healing time).
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

If a biopsy has removed all the cancer, you may not need any further treatment.

Treatment options include:

Prognosis

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. Your treating doctor is the best person to talk to about your prognosis.

Most BCCs and SCCs are successfully treated, especially if found early.

What support is available

While most non-melanoma skin cancers do not pose a serious risk to your health, being told you have cancer can come as a shock and you may feel many different emotions. If you have any concerns or want to talk to someone, see your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20

Whether you have been diagnosed with a skin cancer, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.

Find out more about:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.

Resources

For more information on skin cancer or melanoma please see these resources.

If you are a patient, family or friend and would like to order a copy of either the Understanding Skin Cancer or Understanding Melanoma booklets, please call Cancer Council 13 11 20