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:
- basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
- squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
- melanoma - the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are known as non-melanoma skin cancer or keratinocyte cancers. Keratinocyte cancer is more common in men, with almost double the incidence compared to women.
Melanoma is the third most common cancer in Australians excluding keratinocyte cancers as data on incidence is not routinely collected).
There are also rare types of skin cancer including Merkel cell carcinoma and angiosarcoma. These are treated differently from BCC and SCC.
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
- 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.
Learn more about how Cancer Council funded researchers are working on curing Australia’s national cancer.
Skin cancer signs and 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, particularly spots and moles, so you pick up any changes that might suggest a skin cancer.
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.
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.
Some factors that increase your risk of skin cancer include:
Diagnosis of skin cancer
It is important to check your skin regularly and check with your doctor if you notice any changes.
In the majority of cases, your GP will examine you, paying attention to any spots that may look suspicious. Your GP may perform a biopsy (remove a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope). In some cases your GP may refer you to a specialist, such as a dermatologist, if necessary.
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
- diagnosis and services offered
- follow-up provided.
Cancer Council does not operate or recommend any particular skin cancer clinics or doctors.
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 radiation therapy (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.
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.
Treatment TeamDepending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different health professionals, such as:
- GP (General Practitioner) - looks after your general health and works with your specialists to coordinate treatment.
- Dermatologist- specialises in preventing, diagnosing and treating skin diseases.
- Surgeon- Surgeon which 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.
- Radiation or medical oncologist- A radiation oncologist prescribes and oversees a course of radiation therapy, which may be used to treat some skin cancers.
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:
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.
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.
Most non-melanoma skin cancers do not pose a serious risk to your health but a cancer diagnosis can be a shock. If you want to talk to someone see your doctor. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
- Understanding Skin Cancer, Cancer Council Australia, © 2024. Last medical review of source booklet: January 2024.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality (ACIM) books. Canberra: AIHW.