Cancer Council Australia

Join our network

Facebook Twitter Instagram
Pinterest Youtube RSS

Larger Text Smaller Text Print

Skin cancer



about this glossary tool
Contents
Download PDF

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged, for example, by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.

There are three main types of skin cancer:

Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are known as non-melanoma skin cancer.

Approximately, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, with more than 750,000 people treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers in Australia each year. Non-melanoma skin cancer is more common in men, with almost double the incidence compared to women.

Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer,* melanoma is the third most common cancer in Australians. In 2013, 12,744 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma.

Every year, in Australia:

  • skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers
  • the majority of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun
  • GPs have over 1 million patient consultations per year for skin cancer
  • the incidence of skin cancer is one of the highest in the world, two to three times the rates in Canada, the US and the UK.

In 2014, 2067 people died from skin cancer in Australia, 1467 from melanoma and 600 from non-melanoma skin cancers.

The five-year relative survival rate for melanoma is 88% for men and 93% for women in  Australia.

The five-year relative survival rate for non-melanoma skin cancer is 68% for men and 74% for women in Australia.

*Non-melanoma skin cancers are not notified to cancer registries.


Skin cancer symptoms

The sooner a skin cancer is identified and treated, the better your chance of avoiding surgery or, in the case of a serious melanoma or other skin cancer, potential disfigurement or even death.

It is also a good idea to talk to your doctor about your level of risk and for advice on early detection.

Become familiar with the look of your skin, so you pick up any changes that might suggest a skin cancer. Look for:

  • any crusty, non-healing sores
  • small lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour
  • new spots, freckles or any moles changing in colour, thickness or shape over a period of weeks to months (especially those dark brown to black, red or blue-black in colour).
    Top

Causes of skin cancer

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Anyone can be at risk of developing skin cancer, though the risk increases as you get older.

The majority of skin cancers in Australia are caused by exposure to UV radiation in sunlight.

Sunburn

Sunburn causes 95% of melanomas, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

In Australia, 1 in 8 adults and 1 in 5 teenagers are sunburnt on an average summer weekend. Many people get sunburnt when they are taking part in water sports and activities at the beach or a pool, as well gardening or having a barbeque.

Sunburn is also common on cooler or overcast days, as many people mistakenly believe UV radiation is not as strong. This is untrue – you can still be sunburnt when the temperature is cool.

Sun exposure that doesn't result in burning can still cause damage to skin cells and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Evidence suggests that regular exposure to UV radiation year after year can also lead to skin cancer.

Tanning

A tan is not a sign of good health or wellbeing, despite many Australians referring to a ‘healthy tan’. Almost half of Australian adults still hold the misguided belief that a tan looks healthy.

Tanning is a sign that you have been exposed to enough UV radiation (from the sun or solarium) to damage your skin. This will eventually cause loss of elasticity (wrinkles), sagging, yellowish discolouration and even brown patches to appear on your skin. Worst of all, it increases your risk of skin cancer.

A tan will offer only limited protection from sunburn, usually equivalent to SPF3, depending on your skin type. It does not protect from DNA damage, which can lead to skin cancer.

Some people who use fake tans mistakenly believe it will provide them with protection against UV radiation. As a result, they may not take sun protection measures, putting them at greater risk of skin cancer. More information about fake tans is available in Cancer Council's position statement on fake tans.

Solariums

Solariums emit UVA and UVB radiation, both known causes of cancer. Cancer Council does not recommend solarium use for cosmetic tanning under any circumstances.

As of January 2016, commercial solariums were banned in all states in Australia. ACT has also banned commercial solariums. There are no commercial solariums operating in the Northern Territory.

More information about solariums is available in Cancer Council's position statement on solariums.


Diagnosis for skin cancer

It is important to check your skin regularly and check with your doctor if you notice any changes.

Your doctor may perform a biopsy (remove a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope) or refer you to a specialist if he/she suspects a skin cancer.


Treatment for skin cancer

Skin cancers are almost always removed. In more advanced skin cancers, some of the surrounding tissue may also be removed to make sure that all of the cancerous cells have been taken out.

The most common treatment for skin cancer is surgery to remove the cancer (usually under a local anaesthetic). Common skin cancers can be treated with ointments or radiotherapy. Skin cancer can also be removed with cryotherapy (using liquid nitrogen to rapidly freeze the cancer off), curettage (scraping) or cautery (burning).

For more detailed information about skin cancer please phone Cancer Council 13 11 20 or talk to your GP.

Treatment team

Depending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of medical staff, such as:

  • General Practitioner
  • dermatologist – a doctor who specialises in preventing, diagnosing and treating skin diseases
  • surgeon – this can be a general surgeon, a surgical oncologist to manage complex skin cancers or a plastic surgeon trained in complex constructive techniques, including surgery if the cancer has spread.

Palliative care

In some cases of skin cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer.

As well as slowing the spread of skin cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.

Top


Screening for skin cancer

There is currently no formal screening program for skin cancers in Australia. It is recommended that people become familiar with their skin. If you notice any changes consult your doctor.

More information about early detection is available in Cancer Council's position statement on screening and early detection of skin cancer.

You can also explore our section on how to check your skin for signs of skin cancer.

Download Cancer Council's skin cancer identification poster to help identify potential skin cancers.

Melanoma poster

Top


Skin cancer clinics

Usually operated by GPs, skin cancer clinics can offer a variety of services. Some clinics are run by dermatologists.

Skin cancer clinics may not offer higher levels of expertise than your GP, so it is important to look into what services are offered and the training of the staff.

When choosing a skin cancer clinic consider:

  • staff – qualifications and experience
  • costs
  • diagnosis and services offered
  • follow-up provided.

Cancer Council does not operate or recommend any particular skin cancer clinics or doctors.


Prognosis for skin cancer

It is not possible for a doctor to predict the exact course of a disease. However, your doctor may give you the likely outcome of the disease. If detected early, most skin cancers are successfully treated.


Preventing skin cancer

Protect your skin

For best protection, when the UV level is 3 or above, we recommend a combination of sun protection measures:

  • Slip on some sun-protective clothing – that covers as much skin as possible
  • Slop on broad spectrum, water resistant SPF30+ sunscreen. Put it on 20 minutes before you go outdoors and every two hours afterwards. Sunscreen should never be used to extend the time you spend in the sun.
  • Slap on a hat – that protects your face, head, neck and ears
  • Seek shade
  • Slide on some sunglasses – make sure they meet Australian standards.

Be extra cautious in the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.

For further information please visit our page on preventing skin cancer.

Top


Sources

Understanding Skin Cancer, Cancer Council Australia © 2016. Last medical review of source booklet: February 2016.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2017. Cancer in Australia 2017. Cancer series no. 101. Cat. no. CAN 100. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Non-melanoma skin cancer: general practice consultations, hospitalisation and mortality. Canberra, 2008.

Staples MP, Elwood M, Burton RC, Williams JL, Marks R, Giles GG. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia: the 2002 national survey and trends since 1985. Medical Journal of Australia 2006; 184(1): 6-10.

Armstrong BK. How sun exposure causes skin cancer: An epidemiological perspective. In: Hill D., Elwood J. M. and English D. R. (Eds). Prevention of Skin Cancer. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, pp. 89-116.

Armstrong BK, Kricker A. How much melanoma is caused by sun exposure? Melanoma Research 1993; 3(6): 395-401.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Health system expenditures on cancer and other neoplasms in Australia, 2000-2001. AIHW cat.no. HWE 29. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, :Canberra, Australia 2005.

Volkov A, Dobbinson SJ. 2010–11 National Sun Protection Survey Report 2. Australians’ sun protective behaviours and sunburn incidence on summer weekends, 2010–11 and comparison with 2003–04 and 2006-07 (unpublished). Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria:Melbourne, Australia, October 2011.

Cancer Council Wiki. Skin cancer incidence and mortality. Available from: http://wiki.cancer.org.au/skincancerstats/Skin_cancer_incidence_and_mortality

Top

For more information

For support and information call Cancer Council 13 11 20. This is a confidential service.

Booklets

Includes additional information on treatment, making decisions around treatment and managing side effects of skin cancer treatment.

Also included, detailed information on looking after yourself during and after treatment, and links to both professional and community support.

How you can help

You can support Cancer Council by:

  • volunteering your time
  • participating in an event or
  • making a donation to help fund our cancer research, education and support services.

This page was last updated on: Thursday, November 9, 2017

All donations over $2 are tax deductible