Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Australia, with almost two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer during their lifetimes. This is why early detection and prevention are so important.

While some people are especially at risk – such as those with fair skin and hair, light-coloured eyes and a family history of skin cancer – all Australians should make sure to check their own skin every three months and attend annual screenings to ensure they have the earliest possible detection.

How common is each type of skin cancer?

There are three types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Melanoma

The first two are the most common types of skin cancer, but they are also the least aggressive. Melanoma is the most dangerous of the three types, as it is more likely to spread to lymph nodes and other organs in the body. Thankfully, it is the least common type of skin cancer.

Number of diagnoses in Australia over the years

According to the Melanoma Institute Australia, about 14,000 Australians are diagnosed with melanoma each year. Non-melanoma skin cancer is far more common, leading about 750,000 Australians to seek treatment annually.

While the incidence of skin cancer has been rising in Australia since the 1950s, mortality rates have decreased for most age groups and stabilised for others since the 1980s.

This is mostly because of increased awareness, which has often led to earlier detection. Early detection can greatly increase the success of treatment. Improvements in sun protection, such as more widely available information on the correct use of sunscreen and other protection measures are also positive forces influencing the lower mortality rates.

Treatment options and survival rates

All suspicious lesions noticed either by the patient themselves or by a doctor at an annual screening will undergo further diagnostic testing. This usually involves a biopsy, in which a sample of the cells in question is examined by a pathologist.

If cancer is detected, the biopsy can also help determine which stage it is in. For melanomas, the thickness of the lesion and the presence and degree of spreading to other parts of the body are also important for staging.

In the early stages, most skin cancers are treated by surgically removing the lesion and, if it is a melanoma, some of the surrounding skin. In later stages, removal of affected lymph nodes, radiotherapy and immunotherapy may be used.

Survival rates are always dependent on the stage the cancer was at when it was detected, but also on age and general health at diagnosis. The earlier skin cancer is detected, the better the survival rates. Overall, 90% of those diagnosed with melanoma survive the first 5 years – remarkable evidence for the success of early detection schemes.

If you see a spot or mole that hasn’t been there before, that has changed shape, size or colour recently, or develop a spot that is sore to the touch, make sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately. Early detection will make treatment easier, quicker and decrease the risks of the cancer spreading.