Updated 31 August 2023 | Approved By Dr. Umberto Russo
What is skin cancer?Skin cancer is a type of disease that starts in our skin cells. Our skin is the largest organ in our body and has different layers. When some of the cells in the skin start to grow abnormally and uncontrollably, it can lead to skin cancer. Regularly checking your skin for any changes and protecting it from the sun are important steps in preventing skin cancer. If you notice any unusual spots, moles, or changes in your skin, it's a good idea to talk to a doctor. Skin cancer can usually be treated well if caught early, so it's important to stay aware and take care of your skin.
Types of Skin CancerThere are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma . Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are more common and usually less dangerous. They often appear as changes in the texture or colour of the skin, like a sore that doesn't heal or a scaly patch. Melanoma is a bit more serious. It starts in the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives colour to our skin, hair, and eyes. Melanoma often looks like an unusual mole or a dark spot that changes in size, shape, or color. It can spread to other parts of the body if not treated early.
Skin cancer symptomsSkin cancer symptoms are signs that there might be a problem with your skin cells. There are different types of skin cancer, and they can show different symptoms. Look out for changes in moles or spots on your skin. If you notice the following, please reach out to your GP:
- Changes in the mole’s size, shape, or colou
- Itching or bleeding from the mole(s)
- Sores that don’t seem to heal or keep coming back
- New spots that appear on the skin
- Unusual changes on the skin, like rough patches or scaly areas
Skin cancer causesSkin cancer is often caused by too much exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. When we spend too much time in the sun without protection, these rays can damage our skin's DNA, which can lead to cancer . Getting sunburnt, especially when you're young, increases the risk of skin cancer later in life. Tanning beds and lamps can also give off UV rays, which is another risk factor. It's important to protect your skin by wearing sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses when you're out in the sun. Avoid being in direct sunlight during the peak hours when the sun is strongest, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. By taking these precautions, you can reduce your chances of getting skin cancer and keep your skin healthy for the long term.
Skin cancer diagnosis and testingIn Australia, where the sun is strong, skin cancer is taken seriously. If you notice unusual changes on your skin, like new spots or changing moles, you should reach out to your GP . They will be able to provide comprehensive testing to diagnose any potential skin cancer, including:
- Physical Examination: Doctors use their eyes to perform a skin cancer check for any unusual or changing spots, moles, or growths.
- Dermatoscopy: Also known as dermoscopy or dermatoscopy, this involves using a special magnifying tool called a dermatoscope to examine the skin's surface in more detail. It helps doctors see structures below the skin's surface that might not be visible to the naked eye.
- Biopsy: If a suspicious area is identified, a biopsy might be performed. A small sample of the affected skin is removed and sent to a laboratory for analysis. This helps determine whether the skin cells are cancerous and, if so, what type of skin cancer it is.
- Total body photography: In some cases, especially for individuals with a high risk of skin cancer, doctors might take detailed photographs of the entire body to keep track of changes over time.
- Sentinel lymph node biopsy: For certain types of skin cancer, like melanoma, if there's a risk that the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, a sentinel lymph node biopsy might be done. This involves identifying and removing the lymph nodes most likely to have cancer cells, which can provide important information about the spread of the disease.
Skin cancer treatmentSkin cancer treatment in Australia is carefully tailored based on factors such as the severity, type, and overall health of the individual. Since skin cancer can vary widely in its characteristics, the approach to treatment is not one-size-fits-all. Doctors assess the specific nature of the cancer, whether it's basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma, and consider its stage and potential for spreading. Additionally, the patient's overall health and medical history are taken into account to determine the most appropriate and effective treatment plan. Examples of treatment include :
- Surgery: Doctors can remove the cancerous area through surgery. This might include cutting out the affected skin and sometimes a little bit of healthy skin around it.
- Mohs Surgery: For certain cases, doctors use a special technique called Mohs surgery to remove the cancer layer by layer, checking each layer under a microscope . This helps make sure all the cancer cells are gone.
- Radiation Therapy: In some situations, focused radiation beams can be used to target and destroy cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy Creams: Special creams can be applied directly to the skin to kill cancer cells. This is often used for less invasive forms of skin cancer.
- Cryotherapy: Freezing the cancer cells using liquid nitrogen can be an effective treatment for small skin cancers. Targeted Therapy: For advanced cases, targeted drugs might be used to attack specific changes in cancer cells.
Receiving quality care from highly experienced doctors is essential for a prompt diagnosis and receiving the correct medical treatment. With 24-7 MedCare, you can experience telemedicine from the convenience of your own home. Our friendly online doctors will be available 24/7 for a consultation, anytime and anywhere in Australia.
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- Cancer Council Australia. (2022.). Skin cancer incidence and mortality. https://wiki.cancer.org.au/skincancerstats/Skin_cancer_incidence_and_mortality
- American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d.). Common skin cancers. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/types/common
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023.). Skin cancer: Basic information. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/index.htm#
- Byrnes, J. M., & Heywood, A. (2012). Skin check: RACGP. Australian Family Physician, 41(7), 476-482. https://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2012/july/skin-check
- Byrnes, J., & Heywood, A. (2007). Investigating skin lesions: RACGP. Australian Family Physician, 36(7), 547-550. https://www.racgp.org.au/getattachment/ed6322c7-4bbc-429a-8d0f-1c2373217aa1/200712byrnes.pdf
- Skin Hospital. (n.d.). Mohs surgery. https://skinhospital.edu.au/mohs-surgery-2/