Information and symptoms of skin cancer

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

On this page you will find information on:

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 or keratinocytic skin cancers.

Rare types of skin cancers include Merkel cell carcinoma and angiosarcoma but are treated differently from BCC and SCC. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information.

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

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

BCC starts in the lower layer of the epidermis and makes up about 70% of non-melanoma skin cancers.

  • Usually develops on sun-exposed parts of the body, such as the head, face, neck, shoulders, back, lower arms and lower legs, but it can appear anywhere on the body.
  • It may appear as a pearl-coloured lump or as a slightly scaly area that is shiny and pale or bright pink in colour, although some BCCs have a darker colour.
  • BCCs may bleed and become inflamed, some BCCs seem to heal then become inflamed again.
  • BCCs tend to grow slowly over months or years.

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.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

SCC starts in the upper layer of the epidermis and accounts for about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers.

  • SCC usually appears on parts of the body most often exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands, forearms or lower legs, but it can start anywhere on the body.
  • It may bleed and become inflamed and is often tender to touch.
  • It often appears as a thickened, red, scaly or crusted spot or rapidly growing lump.
  • It is more common as you get older.
  • SCCs tend to grow quickly over several weeks or months.

SCCs may spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. SCC on the lips and ears is more likely to spread and should be examined by as doctor as soon as possible.

Melanoma

Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world. Melanoma is considered the most serious type of skin cancer. For more information on how melanoma is diagnosed and treated please refer to the Melanoma page.

How common is skin cancer?

Australia has among 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 770,000 new cases of BCC and SCC are diagnosed and treated each year. BCC can develop in young people but is more common in people aged over 40. SCC occurs mostly in people over 50.

More than 12,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year. It is among the five most commonly diagnosed cancers in all age groups. For more information about the diagnosis and treatment of melanoma please refer to the Melanoma page.

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

Anyone can develop skin cancer, but it’s more common the older you are. The risk is also higher for 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).
  • Experienced 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/sunbeds.
  • Worked outdoors.
  • A weakened immune system, which could be caused by taking certain medications after an organ transplant (immunosuppressants) or being HIV positive.
  • Lots of moles on their body
  • Moles with an irregular shape and uneven colour (dysplastic naevi).
  • A previous or family history of skin cancer.
  • Certain conditions such as sunspots.

People with olive or very dark skin naturally have more protection against skin cancer because their skin produces more melanin than fair-skinned people. However, they can still develop skin cancer.

Diagnosis

If you notice any changes to your skin, there are a number of health professionals you can see to help make a diagnosis.

They will examine you, paying particular attention to any spots you think are suspicious. Your doctor may use a handheld magnifying instrument called a dermatoscope to see the spots more clearly. Many skins cancers are diagnosed with only a physical examination, but others require a biopsy.

  • 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) to confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy is a quick and simple procedure that is usually performed in the doctor’s 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 of skin cancer

Skin cancer is treated in different ways. Treatment will depend on:

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

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

Treatment options include:

For more information on the treatment of skin cancer please refer to the Understanding Skin Cancer booklet.

Prognosis

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

Most non-melanoma skin cancers such as BCC and SCC are successfully treated, especially if found early.

What support is available?

While most 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.

For more information on skin cancer please refer to the Understanding Skin Cancer booklet. You can download the PDF or order a hard copy.

You can also refer to the Basal and Squamous Cell Carcinoma What to Expect guide to help you make sense of what should happen, and to help you with what questions to ask your health professionals to make sure you receive the best care at every step.

For more information on melanoma please refer to the Understanding Melanoma booklet. You can download the PDF or order a hard copy.

You can also refer to the Melanoma What to Expect guide to help you make sense of what should happen, and to help you with what questions to ask your health professionals to make sure you receive the best care at every step.