Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world, with Australia having an above-average rate of cases. The good news about skin cancer is that with early detection and the right treatment, patients can make a full recovery.
While that's all well and good to know, some of the most common questions we're asked are what skin cancers look like and when people should be concerned about a mole. These are great questions to ask because they could be the difference between catching skin cancer early and requiring more severe treatment. Skin cancers are obviously a concern for everyone, so we're going to provide some information and advice on spotting potential symptoms.
What are the common signs + symptoms in the early stages of skin cancer?
The warning signs of skin cancer can vary depending on the person and the type of cancer they have. While some symptoms are prominent and easy to spot, others are much more subtle. Regardless, it's important to let a doctor or dermatologist make the diagnosis.
Melanoma Warning Signs
Melanoma is the most deadly and aggressive form of skin cancer and one where time is of the essence. In the early stages, melanoma will only be on the skin's surface. However, as it develops, it'll grow deeper and spread throughout the body.
This is why it is so vital to catch melanomas as early as possible. A key component of achieving this is skin cancer awareness among the public. We highly recommend looking at our guide to the ABCDEs of Skin Cancer Detection, which is particularly useful for detecting potential melanoma. In summary, this highlights the key factors to look for in a mole to determine if it may be of concern:
Most benign spots tend to be fairly symmetrical and have a consistent round shape. Melanoma doesn't conform to a particular shape and is often asymmetrical. If you notice a mark that is an irregular or abnormal shape, or a mole that has become an odd shape, it's worth checking.
A big warning sign is moles and spots that don't have straight, outlined edges. This means a border that is blurred, uneven or raised or has a white line around it. Any scabbing, bleeding or odd colours around the border are other symptoms that should be investigated.
Moles come in a variety of colours, many of which are perfectly normal, including many shades of brown. What you need to be concerned about is multiple colours, a change in colour or atypical colours such as black, blue, red or white. Any shading or inconsistency in colour can also be a sign something might be up.
If you have a mole or spot that is over 1/4 inch in diameter (or roughly the size of the eraser at the end of a pencil), it can be a sign of melanoma. Before you jump to conclusions, there are unusually large moles, so this isn't necessarily a sure sign you have melanoma. On the other side of the coin, we should make clear that malignant cancers can also be small, so if you have a smaller spot showing any of the other symptoms on this list, definitely have it looked at.
This refers to any growth or changes occurring in any part of an existing mole over time. By changes, we mean colour, size, texture, elevation or anything odd. If the spot or mole becomes sore, itches, bleed or are uncomfortable in any way, it could be a sign something's not right. All of the previously mentioned signs are especially concerning if they're from a change.
If you happen to notice any of the above or aren't sure, it's best to see your skin specialist as soon as you can. If it is benign or something harmless like a freckle, you'll be given peace of mind and can get on with your life.
Early Basal Cell Carcinoma Warning Signs
Statistics show that the most common kind of skin cancer, Basil Cell Carcinoma, often begins as a small, translucent lump and can often be mistaken as blemishes, eczema, pimples, or skin growths.
Basal Cell Cancer is commonly found on the face, ear and nose area, but can also appear on the arm, leg and other parts of the body. They're the least dangerous and most easily treatable form of skin cancer. Of the skin cancers, Basal Cell Carcinoma is the slowest growing, often taking months or years to develop. It also doesn't usually spread, which is a big factor as to why it isn't as concerning as melanoma.
Though Basal Cell Carcinoma isn't as dangerous as other types of skin cancer, this isn't to suggest you should ignore it. The great news is it can be diagnosed and treated by most doctors without the need for major surgery. One concern is that Basil Cell Carcinoma can occasionally be misdiagnosed by non-specialist doctors, so to be sure, have your spot checked by by a dermatologist.
Early Squamous Cell Carcinoma Warning Signs
The second most common type of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. These types of skin cancer are one of the serious side effects of people who have an unusually high amount of UV exposure, often as a result of tanning beds, tanning lotion, or forgoing all sun protection.
SCC starts as flat cells on the surface of the skin and, if left untreated, grow deeper and spread throughout your body. Some key signs to look out for include:
- A firm, red nodule
- Any flat sore with a scaly crust
- Any suspicious new sore, lesion or changes to an old scar or ulcer.
- Red sores or rough patches on the inside of your mouth
- Red, raised bumps or wart-like sore around the anus or genital area.
Can skin cancer be prevented?
There are certain steps you can take to greatly reduce your chances of getting skin cancer (see below), but sometimes even careful people can still get skin cancer. Prevention is one of the key steps you can take, but being in tune with your body and having regular skin checks will greatly reduce any potential harm caused by skin cancer.
Being aware of your body will help you keep track of any changes. Statistically, the most common areas you'll find skin cancer are areas that are frequently exposed to the sun, including your scalp, around the eyes, ears, face, lips, neck, hands, arms, legs, chest and back.
Essentially, skin cancer can start anywhere on your body. One Aussie woman was shocked when she discovered skin cancer on her nose. Though less common, skin cancer can grow in areas rarely exposed to the sun including your palms, genital area, fingernails, toenails and toes, or the soles of your feet. In fact, in people with darker skin tones, melanoma is more likely to appear in one of these areas rarely exposed to the sun.
Risk factors for skin cancer
Anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of history, genetics, or skin type. However, some people are more at risk than others, with some of the key skin cancer risk factors being:
- Fair Skin
- Excessive Sun Exposure
- History of Sunburns
- Family history of skin cancer
- A weakened immune system
- Precancerous Skin Lesions
9 Steps you can take today to prevent skin cancer
Skin cancer comes as a result of too much UV exposure. There are a number of sun safety practices including:
- Staying in the shade
- Wearing shirts and clothes that cover your skin
- Wearing a hat and sunglasses
- Putting on sunscreen - be sure you're buying quality products with at least SPF 30
- Avoid tanning (there's no such thing as a healthy tan)
- Don't be fooled by cloudy weather - grey skies don't stop UV rays.
- Stay hydrated
- Treat any sunburns with care
- Monitor your skin for any changes.
Regular skin cancer screenings are the best way to keep on top of your skin health and catch any concerning moles before they cause harm. Most mole checks will be performed with you in your underwear. Skin cancers are rare in the breast, buttock and genital regions. However, it's not impossible. If you have a mole in any of these areas, you can request your doctor to have a look.
The average session takes fifteen minutes during which your doctor will look at your moles using a magnifying lamp, making a note if any spot is of interest. If necessary, they will use a dermatoscope to more thoroughly scan suspicious moles for signs of cancer.
If further action needs to be taken, simple treatments can be performed during your session. More complicated surgical excisions will need to be booked for another appointment.
Who should be screened for skin cancer?
We recommend everyone, especially people over 35, should have a skin check at least once a year. If you have a history of skin cancer, you may need to be checked more regularly.
Often, screenings find nothing and that mark is just an age spot or completely benign. When a screening does find something, though, it saves lives. Our team specialises in providing comprehensive mole checks and reliable diagnosis. Our skin cancer clinics are run by highly trained medical professionals who are solely dedicated to detecting and treating skin cancer. We provide a range of services under one roof, including skin checks, pathology and treatment.
If you've found something concerning during a self-check or are due for a screening, Sun Doctors can catch skin cancer in its early stage. We offer a variety of treatments if necessary and employ the latest technology and research to provide you with the best care. You can book your next appointment online or phone 13 SKIN (13 75 46).