Common conditions


If caught early, skin cancer can be successfully treated so checking your skin regularly is vital.

Though suntans fade, the damage they cause lasts a lifetime, increasing your risk of skin cancer.

To minimise damage, use sun protection when UV levels reach three or above and avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm (10am to 2pm outside daylight saving hours). Wear a broad-spectrum SPF50+ sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, protective clothing such as rashies, and Australian Standard sunglasses.

It’s also important to be savvy about skin cancer signs. “When it comes to successfully treating skin cancer, early detection is key,” says Professor Ian Olver, CEO of Cancer Council Australia (CCA). That’s why you need to be informed about skin cancer and its signs.

Spot checks

Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70, according to the CCA, so it’s imperative you keep a close eye on your skin and go to the doctor if you notice changes.

“When checking your skin, you can enlist the help of someone close to you to examine those hard-to-see areas such as underarms, buttocks, soles of your feet and the back of your legs and shoulders,” says Professor Olver.

Making the check solo? Then use both a full-length and hand mirror to examine hard-to-reach areas. Make a date with a friend or relative to do a mutual skin cancer check where you both wear shorts and singlets or swimming costumes and check areas like backs of legs and shoulders.

“Make sure you also check ears, under the nails, between your fingers and all over your scalp where it is hidden by hair,” Professor Olver advises. Use a hairdryer to shift areas of hair so you can see your scalp more clearly. 

Where to look

To ensure your skin check is thorough, undress completely and stand in a good light. As you examine your skin, keep a record of the date and anything of note. Check:

  • your torso (front, back and sides)
  • arms, hands, palms and fingers
  • buttocks, legs and feet (including the soles)
  • head, shoulders, scalp, neck and ears
  • face, including nose, lips and under the chin
  • the skin between areas like fingers and toes and under toenails.

When to seek help 

Alert your doctor if you notice:

  • itching, flaking, bleeding, crusting, weeping, or ulceration of any spots since you last checked
  • new spots that are dry and scaly; pearly, pale red, black or dark brown; lumpy, or have uneven or smudgy outlines
  • freckles, birthmarks or moles that have changed shape, size or colour (including darkening, lightening or simply a variation or irregularity in pigmentation)
  • a sore that doesn’t heal.

If skin cancer is detected, your GP may suggest a treatment such as special topical cream applied to skin or cryotherapy (freezing), or refer you to a specialist for a small surgical procedure. A tissue sample will then be taken and sent for examination to determine if the spot is a melanoma or non-melanoma such as squamous cell carcinoma or a basal cell carcinoma.

Early detection

The most dangerous skin cancer, melanoma, may appear brown, black red, pinkish or flesh toned and have asymmetric or smudgy borders. According to the Cancer Council NSW, it’s often curable if found early before it has grown deeper into the dermis of the skin and spread.

Squamous cell carcinoma often presents as a thickened, scaly spot which grows over some months and may later bleed or ulcerate, while basal cell carcinoma, the most common but least dangerous form of skin cancer, is usually a small lumpy or scaly area of skin that appears red, pale or pearly. As it grows it may become ulcerated.

“Remember that quick detection is critical to stopping a small skin cancer from spreading to other parts of your body,” says Professor Olver. “The cure rate for melanoma treated in its early stages is over 90 per cent and the cure rate for other skin cancers detected early is close to 100 per cent.”

Use the ABCD of melanoma detection to check for:

  • Asymmetry: If the spot or lesion is divided in half, the two halves are not a mirror image.
  • Border: A spot with a spreading or irregular edge.
  • Colour: A spot with a number of different colours through it.
  • Diameter: A spot that is growing and changing in diameter or size.

What’s your skin cancer risk?

More than half of all Australians will develop some form of skin cancer, which kills around 2,000 people every year. Every Australian is at risk but the risk is worse if you have:

  • a large number of moles
  • spent your childhood in Australia
  • suffered sunburn in the past
  • fair skin that burns easily, freckles or does not tan
  • red or fair hair, blue or green eyes
  • a family history of melanoma
  • had skin cancer in the past.

For more information call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20 or learn more about skin tumour removal.

This article was originally published in Fit&Well magazine in December 2014.


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