Skin Cancer Overview

Skin Cancer Overview

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Skin cancer is a disease of the body’s skin cells caused mainly by cumulative exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun. It is the most common form of cancer in Australia.

Types and symptoms

There are three types of skin cancer which are named after the skin cell where the cancer develops. There are two types of non-melanoma skin cancer, and melanoma.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

BCCs are the most common form of skin cancer, but the least dangerous. A BCC grows slowly – over months or years – usually on the head, neck and upper torso. It may appear as a lump or dry, scaly area, and can be red, pale or pearly in colour. As it grows, it may ulcerate or appear like a sore that does not heal properly. 

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

More serious than a BCC but not as dangerous as melanoma,  an SCC may spread to other parts of the body if not treated. It grows over some months and appears on skin most often exposed to the sun, and is often found on lips, ears and scalp. Look for scaly red areas that may bleed easily, ulcers or non-healing sores that are often painful.


Melanoma is the least common but most serious form of skin cancer. Melanomas can grow quickly, and become life-threatening in as little as six weeks. Untreated they can spread to other parts of the body. 

Melanomas can appear on skin not normally exposed to the sun, in a new or an existing spot, freckle or mole that changes colour, size or shape. They occur most frequently on the upper back in males and on the lower leg in females.

Usually flat with an uneven smudgy outline, they may be blotchy and more than one colour – brown, black, blue, red or grey. Use the ABCD rule to look for melanoma where: 

  • A = asymmetry, look for spots that are asymmetrical not round 
  • B = border, look for spots with uneven borders
  • C = colour, look for spots with an unusual or uneven colour 
  • D = diameter, look for spots that are larger than 7 mm

Eye damage

Eyes can also suffer from UV damage, evidenced by red lines in the whites of an eye. Sun exposure can cause burns to the eye similar to sunburn of the skin which may lead to:

  • cataracts (clouding of the lens)
  • pterygium (tissue covering the cornea)
  • cancer of the conjunctiva or cornea.


Skin cancer is caused mainly by the repeated exposure of skin to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As stated above, it is Australia’s most common form of cancer.

Risks and complications

People at higher risk of skin cancer are those who:

Conditions which may predispose you to skin cancer

The following conditions may be a warning sign that damage to the skin or eyes has occurred:

  • Dysplastic naevi – red oval shaped marks on the skin that aren’t cancer but may indicate a greater risk of developing melanoma. 
  • Solar kertoses – generally hard, red, scaly spots on sun exposed areas of the skin like the head, neck and the backs of the hands.


It’s wise to get to know your skin. If you find a suspicious spot, see your doctor as soon as possible. Skin cancer is diagnosed by physical examination and biopsy. Biopsy is a quick and simple procedure where part or all of the spot is removed and sent to a laboratory. It may be done by your family doctor or you can be referred to a dermatologist or surgeon. Results may take about a week to be ready.


Lifestyle factors that increase the risk of skin cancer include suntanning, visiting solariums and using sunlamps. Occupations that involve working outdoors increase your risk, and the use of Cancer Council recommended sunscreens is of critical importance whenever you will be spending time outdoors.


Treatment will depend on your age and general health, the type and size of cancer, where it is on your body, and on whether the skin cancer has spread elsewhere in your body.

Types of treatment include:

  • surgery
  • freezing
  • scraping
  • radiotherapy
  • immunotherapy
  • targeted therapy
  • chemotherapy.

More info

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