Skin cancer in Australia
Skin cancer, including BCC, SCC and Melanoma, is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in Australia. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70. Over the past decades, the incidence of skin cancer has risen in Australia. Over 434,000 people are treated for one or more BCC or SCC skin cancers in Australia each year. On its own, Melanoma is the third most common cancer in both Australian women and men, and the most common cancer in Australians aged 15-44 years.
These articles provide general information about skin cancer. We can help you with caring for your skin to seeking treatment and advice for more serious skin conditions. If you have a skin condition or skin cancer and require specific advice make an appointment to see our dermatologist. Contact us today!
Every year, in Australia
- Skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers
- Between 95 and 99% of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun
- Family doctors 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
There are three main types of skin cancer
Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged, for example, by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Skin cancer is due to the abnormal growth of skin cells and most often develops on skin exposed to the sun. Skin cancer can also occur on areas of your skin not ordinarily exposed to sunlight.
- Melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)*
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)*
*Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are known as non-melanoma skin cancer.
Factors that increase your risk of skin cancer include:
Anyone, regardless of skin colour, can get skin cancer. However, having less pigment (melanin) in your skin provides less protection from damaging UV radiation. If you have blond or red hair and light-coloured eyes, and you freckle or sunburn easily, you’re much more likely to develop skin cancer than is a person with darker skin. A history of sunburns. Having had one or more blistering sunburns as a child or teenager increases your risk of developing skin cancer as an adult. Sunburns in adulthood also are a risk factor.
Excessive sun exposure
Anyone who spends considerable time in the sun may develop skin cancer, especially if the skin isn’t protected by sunscreen or clothing. Tanning, including exposure to tanning lamps and beds, also puts you at risk. A tan is your skin’s injury response to excessive UV radiation.
Sunny or high-altitude climates
People who live in sunny, warm climates are exposed to more sunlight than are people who live in colder climates. Living at higher elevations, where the sunlight is strongest, also exposes you to more radiation.
People who have many moles or abnormal moles called dysplastic nevi are at increased risk of skin cancer. These abnormal moles — which look irregular and are generally larger than normal moles — are more likely than others to become cancerous. If you have a history of abnormal moles, watch them regularly for changes.
Precancerous skin lesions
Having skin lesions known as actinic keratoses can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. These precancerous skin growths typically appear as rough, scaly patches that range in colour from brown to dark pink. They’re most common on the face, head and hands of fair-skinned people whose skin has been sun damaged.
A family history of skin cancer
If one of your parents or a sibling has had skin cancer, you may have an increased risk of the disease.
A personal history of skin cancer
If you developed skin cancer once, you’re at risk of developing it again.
A weakened immune system
People with weakened immune systems have a greater risk of developing skin cancer. This includes people living with HIV/AIDS and those taking immunosuppressant drugs after an organ transplant.
Exposure to radiation
People who received radiation treatment for skin conditions such as eczema and acne may have an increased risk of skin cancer, particularly basal cell carcinoma.
Exposure to certain chemicals
Exposure to certain substances, such as arsenic, may increase your risk of skin cancer.
Symptoms and diagnosis
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.
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, including:
- 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)
Check your skin regularly and report changes to your doctor. Examine your skin often for new skin growths or changes in existing moles, freckles, bumps and birthmarks.
With the help of mirrors, check your face, neck, ears and scalp. Examine your chest and trunk, and the tops and undersides of your arms and hands. Examine both the front and back of your legs, and your feet, including the soles and the spaces between your toes. Also check your genital area and between your buttocks.
If you notice any changes consult your doctor. 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.
Protect your skin For best protection, 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. The sun’s rays are strongest between about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Schedule outdoor activities for other times of the day, even in winter or when the sky is cloudy.
You can reduce your risk of skin cancer by limiting or avoiding exposure to sunlight – UV radiation. Checking your skin for suspicious changes can help detect skin cancer at its earliest stages. Early detection of skin cancer gives you the greatest chance for successful skin cancer treatment.
SunSmart UV alert
The SunSmart UV Alert is reported in the weather section of daily newspapers and on the Bureau of Meteorology website. Issued by the Bureau when they forecast a UV Index for the day of three or above, the SunSmart UV Alert identifies the times during the day when sun protection will be needed.
Apply sunscreen liberally – at least a teaspoon for each limb, front and back of the body and half a teaspoon for the face, neck and ears. Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen resulting in only 50-80% of the protection stated on the product.
Sun protection and babies
Evidence suggests that childhood sun exposure contributes significantly to your lifetime risk of skin cancer. Cancer Council Australia recommends keeping babies out of the sun as much as possible for the first 12 months.
- Where this is not possible, parents and carers should minimise exposure by:
- Planning the day’s activities outside the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.
- Cover as much skin as possible with loose fitting clothes and wraps made from closely woven fabrics.
- Choosing a hat that protects the baby’s face, neck and ears.
- Make use of available shade or create shade for the pram, stroller or play area. The material should cast a dark shadow. The baby will still need to be protected from scattered and reflected UV radiation.
- Keep an eye on the baby’s clothing, hat and shade to ensure they continue to be well-protected.
- Apply a broad spectrum, water resistant sunscreen to small areas of the skin that cannot be protected by clothing, such as the face, ears, neck and hands, remembering to reapply the sunscreen every two hours or more often it is wiped or washed off.
There is no evidence that using sunscreen on babies is harmful, although some babies may develop minor skin irritation. Try sunscreen milks or creams for sensitive skin which are less likely to irritate the skin. As with all products, use of any sunscreen should cease if any unusual reaction occurs.
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. If you have questions or concerns about skin cancer, contact your local doctor, who will arrange for you to see a dermatologist.