Spotting the signs of skin cancer

We hear a lot about Melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer, but there are other far more common types many of us know little about.

Many Aussies love our outdoor lifestyle, but too much time in the sun without adequate protection can be dangerous or even deadly.

Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and it’s rising. At least 2 out of 3 Australians will develop skin cancer by the time they are 70.

Types of skin cancer

There are two main types of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer.


Australia is the melanoma capital of the world. There are more than 10,000 new cases diagnosed every year. 

Melanomas can begin as a new spot that is flat. They can be tan, dark brown, black, blue, red and even light grey. As they grow, they can change colour and become more irregular in shape. 
Photo: Cancer Council Australia

The most common place for women to develop melanoma is on their legs; for men, it's on their chest or back. 

Melanoma can spread to other parts of the body (through your blood or lymph system), where it may grow and form secondary tumours. This spreading is called metastasis, or secondary melanoma.

While it is the most serious form of skin cancer, it is usually curable if it is found early.

Non-melanoma skin cancer 

There are different types of NMSC, named after the type of cells they form from. These cancers usually occur in areas regularly exposed to the sun, like your head or neck. 

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

Basal cell carcinoma
Photo: Cancer Council Australia

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common but least dangerous of all the skin cancers. About 3 out of 4 people diagnosed with skin cancer, will have BCC.

BCCs are usually caused by many years of sun exposure. It might appear as a small red patch or bump at first which may go unnoticed until it becomes more advanced. The good news is these cancers grow slowly and normally don’t spread to other tissues.

Almost all BCCs can be treated, but, if they’re not they can grow deeper into your skin and damage other tissues including your bone. 

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer, but is more dangerous that basal cell carcinomas.

SCC is usually seen in people over 50. About 4 in 10 Australians diagnosed with a non-melanoma skin cancer have SCC. 
Squamous cell Carcinoma
Photo: Cancer Council Australia

Causes of SCC include: 
  • a family history of SCC
  • exposure to the sun or using a sun bed
  • radiotherapy as part of cancer treatment
  • a weakened immune system (e.g. if you have HIV, or you are taking medicines that affect your immune system).
SCCs can appear anywhere on the body, but they usually develop on skin that’s been exposed to the sun regularly like the face, ears, neck, scalp, arms, hands and lower legs.

Squamous cell carcinomas usually grow slowly. They may look like a reddish patch that has a rough, scaly or crusty surface or a sore that doesn’t heal properly.

An SCC can spread into your surrounding skin. It can also spread to other areas of your body, but this is rare.

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