Skin cancer – what you need to know
Australians have the world’s highest rate of skin cancer, with two out of three people being diagnosed with some form of skin cancer by the time they reach 70. Skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers in Australia.
With such a high prevalence, it is vital to understand what causes skin cancer, the warning signs to look for, and know how you can help to prevent it.
Types of Skin Cancer
There are three main types of skin cancer:
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – this is a common form of skin cancer that is non-invasive. However if not treated, it can develop into a more dangerous form of cancer. BCC may look like a pink shiny dry area on the skin, or a small lump. It tends to develop on the face, neck, and any other areas with high sun exposure.
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)– this also develops on parts of the body that have had high sun exposure, and may look like a sore spot or lump that’s getting bigger. It grows much quicker than BCC.
- Melanoma– this is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and can occur on any part of the body, although it’s more common in areas that have been exposed to the sun. The most common signs are a new mole in adults, or existing moles that have changed appearance. Melanoma can spread rapidly to other parts of the body.
Causes of Skin Cancer
Exposure to UV radiation in the form of sunlight is the most common cause of skin cancer. Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
Sunburn causes damage to skin cells, and it’s thought that experiencing five or more occurrences of bad sunburn over the course of your life (enough to blister your skin) can double your risk of developing melanoma.
Even if you don’t burn, frequently exposing your skin to strong sunlight is harmful. Many Australians think a tan looks healthy, but it’s actually a sign of skin damage and can increase your risk of skin cancer. Remember UV exposure is not dependent on the outside temperature or cloud cover. You can still burn on a cool, cloudy day.
UV light from tanning beds and solariums is also dangerous. In fact, solariums can emit UV radiation at a rate that’s six times higher than the midday sun.
Symptoms of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is usually treatable when identified at an early stage. However advanced melanoma can be deadly. For this reason, it is vital to be aware of the early symptoms of skin cancer so that you can talk to your doctor if you see any warning signs.
Become familiar with the appearance of your skin so you are able to identify any changes. Check the skin on your entire body regularly (at least every few months). Notice any changes. Be particularly aware of any existing or new moles. Warning signs to look for include:
- Spots, sores, or red scaly patches that don’t seem to be healing
- Small lumps that are pale, red or pearly in colour
- New moles, freckles or spots
- Moles that have changed colour, grown bigger, changed shape, or become more prominent.
If you do notice any changes, make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor will examine your skin thoroughly and may refer to you a specialist. If you have a lot of freckles or moles then speak to your Doctor about regular surveillance.
Skin Cancer Prevention
Sunscreen can help to protect your skin against the damaging effect of the sun, but it’s important to choose one that blocks both UVB and UVA. You must also apply sunscreen 20 minutes before exposure to the sun and reapply it every two hours.
It’s best to completely avoid sunexposure when UV is strongest. What time this is exactly depends on where you are in Australia, the time of year, and the UV index of that day, but it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid being directly in the sun between the hours of 10am and 3pm.
Of course this isn’t always possible, especially if you work outdoors. This is one of the reasons why men are more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer.
If you’re know you are going to be outside when the sun is at its strongest, don’t rely on sunscreen alone. Wear a hat and cover up with clothing, preferably clothing with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating – the higher, the better.
Some medications can also increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. These include ibuprofen, antihistamines, antibiotics and some blood pressure medications. Check your medication to see if photosensitivity is listed as a side effect and be extra vigilant about sun exposure. The same advice applies to pregnant women, as hormone changes can also make your skin more prone to damage.
Having dark skin, or skin that tans easily doesn’t mean you are immune to sun damage. You still need to cover up and take precautions in strong sunlight. However, if you have fair skin and tend to burn easily, your risk of developing skin cancer is higher.
It is advisable to have a thorough skin check with a doctor at least once a year.
Skin Cancer Treatment
Skin cancer is treated by removing the affected area of skin. Depending on the type of cancer and how large it is, it may be cut, burned, or frozen off under local anaesthetic.
For large lesions and melanoma, you may need imaging tests or a lymph node biopsy to determine if the cancer has spread.
For more advanced cancers that have spread to other organs, more invasive surgery will usually be necessary, sometimes combined with radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
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