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Are there Different Types of Skin Cancer? - 3 Types to Watch for

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Skin cancer - you've likely heard of it, spent your life trying to avoid it, or experienced it first hand. It refers to an uncontrolled abnormal growth of skin cells caused by exposure to UV rays, and develops primarily on the most sun exposed areas of the skin, however it can form on areas that rarely see sunlight.

Australia is one of the sunniest countries in the world, it also has the highest rate of skin cancer. According to the Cancer Council, around two in every three Australians will develop some form of skin cancer before they turn 70. Thankfully, non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common, which is highly treatable when caught early.

Although the facts and figures may be alarming, skin cancer is a largely preventable and highly treatable disease, with information and early detection being key. This begins with understanding the most common skin cancers, along with the risk factors for developing skin cancer and how to protect yourself.

Read on to find out all you need to know about the most common cancer types in Australia.

What are the main 3 types of skin cancer?

The three main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma (otherwise known as non-melanoma skin cancer and keratinocyte cancer) and melanoma.

Rarer types of non-melanoma skin cancer exist, known as Merkel cell carcinoma and angiosarcoma. Melanoma is the most deadly and aggressive type of skin cancer and can spread quickly to other parts of the body if left untreated. Thankfully, it is less common than BCC and SCC.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer and is responsible for around 66% of skin cancer diagnoses. BCC starts in the basal cells, or the outer layer, of the skin and grows slowly over months or even years. It rarely spreads to other parts of the body, yet it can damage nerves and tissues under the site of disease, making treatment more difficult and less successful.

Basal cell carcinoma is most often found on the neck or face since these areas experience the most sun exposure.

The signs and symptoms of BCC include:

  • A waxy or pearl-like bump
  • A scabbing or bleeding sore that won't heal
  • Strange sores on sun exposed areas that may appear as scaly, shiny, pink or dark brown

How Basal Cell Carcinoma is treated:

This will depend on the area and severity. Basal Cell Carcinoma is most often treated with surgery to remove the cancer and some surrounding tissue. This will be performed through a surgical excision, or Mohs surgery, where the cancer will be removed layer by layer until no abnormal cells remain.

Often, this is all that's needed, however having one Basal Cell Carcinoma increases the risk of having more on the body, so regular checkups and biopsies may be required.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common type of skin cancer, and is responsible for around 33% of cases.

It begins in the squamous cells, or the cells found in the tissues of the surface layer of the skin. Skin cancer develops in the squamous cells over several weeks or months, and can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. It is more likely to spread on the ears and lips.

If the disease remains on the top layer of the skin, it is called SCC in situ, Bowen's disease or intra-epidermal carcinoma. If it spreads, it is called invasive or metastatic SCC.

The signs and symptoms of SCC include:

  • A rapidly growing lump
  • A firm, red nodule
  • A flat lesion with a scaly or crusted surface
  • A sore that won't heal
  • A spot that is tender to the touch
  • Thickened, red scaly spot in an area commonly exposed to the sun

How Squamous Cell Carcinoma is treated:

When caught early, excisional surgery or Mohs surgery may be all that's needed. However, treatment will depend on your tumour type, size, location, depth and your health and age. More extensive treatment options for squamous cell carcinomas may include chemotherapy applied topically, or radiation.


Melanoma is the most aggressive and dangerous types of skin cancer. It can develop anywhere on the body, as a mole that becomes cancerous or by damaging normal skin cells.

Melanoma effects both men and women, melanoma appears mostly on the face or truck of men and the legs of women. Having fair skin places you at higher risk of developing skin cancer, however even those with a darker skin tone are at risk. In these instances, the cancer may form on the palms, fingernails or toes. Melanoma can form anywhere on the body, even parts that don't often see the sun.

The signs and symptoms of Melanoma include:

  • Large brown spots with darker patches throughout
  • Moles that change colour, size or texture or become painful
  • A small lesion with an asymmetrical or odd border
  • A spot with a diameter larger than 7mm

How Melanoma is treated:

The recommendations for treatment of Melanoma will depend on a range of factors, including but not limited to the rate of spread, the thickness and type of mole, the stage of cancer, and the patients overall health.

Treatment will be weighed with the outcome potential and quality of life goals, and can include surgery, radiation, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Every case and patient will have different treatment protocols.

Know these risk factors of skin cancer

Anybody can develop skin cancer, however some are at greater risk than others. Some of the risk factors for skin cancer development include:

  • Genetics such as pale or freckled skin, red hair and light coloured eyes
  • Intense periods of sun exposure such as unexpected sunburn
  • Use of tanning beds and solariums
  • A weakened or compromised immune system
  • Outdoor workers or those exposed to arsenic
  • A high concentration of moles on the body
  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Sunspots on the skin

Just as everyone is different in their DNA, lifestyle habits and exposure levels, every cancer will be different in the best treatment and diagnostic methods. The only way to be certain about the health of your skin is to find a qualified local skin care clinic to book your next appointment at.

SunDoctor's skin check clinics in Australia wide provide all you need to step out with confidence this summer, from annual skin checks to comprehensive treatment options. Click here to book your skin cancer check today!

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