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How to spot skin cancer – what it looks like and what to do next

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Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in Australia, with thousands of Australians diagnosed every year. In fact, according to the Cancer Council:

  • More than 750,000 Australians are treated each year for at least one non-melanoma skin cancers, with over 2,000 deaths annually
  • Around 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70
  • 80% of newly diagnosed cancers each year are skin cancers
  • Rates of treatment for basal and squamous cell carcinomas – the two types of non-melanoma skin cancer – are more than five times that of all other cancers combined

Skin cancer is something that can affect anyone, though this risk increases with age, overexposure to the sun, and a family history of cancer. Thankfully, if it is spotted early, skin cancer can respond extremely well to treatment. Regular checkups from a general practitioner with expertise in skin cancer are a great method for identifying and treating skin cancers. It’s also quite beneficial, though, to be able to know what skin cancer looks like – which is what we will guide you through now.

What does skin cancer look like?

There are three main types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Melanoma

Basal cell carcinoma

The most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma is often caused by frequent sun exposure. It generally occurs on regions of the body that endure the highest levels of exposure (head, face, neck and shoulder, to name a few) and especially affects people with fair skin, light hair, and lighter-coloured eyes.

A shiny, reddish, dry area of skin may indicate the presence of a basal cell carcinoma. Other signs can include a small lump, an open sore, or a growth with an elevated border. Basal cell carcinoma is often completely asymptomatic.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Accounting for roughly 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers, squamous cell carcinoma begins in the upper layer of the epidermis. It, too, is often caused by chronic sun exposure, and is more likely to occur in people with fairer complexions. However, squamous cell carcinoma can also occur where there are pre-existing burns or other inflammatory conditions.

These skin cancers tend to grow quite quickly and symptoms of their presence include a rapidly growing lump, scaly red spots, open sores, and tenderness when touched.


Melanoma is also most likely to occur on parts of the body that have endured overexposure to the sun. However, it may also be found in parts of the body that are rarely or never exposed to the sun. For women, melanomas most frequently occur on the legs, though for men, they are most often found on the back.

Though melanoma may not have any obvious symptoms, an initial sign is commonly the appearance of a new spot or a change in the appearance of an existing mole. This could involve an increase in the mole’s size, a change in colour or colours, or a shift in the mole’s shape and elevation.

The Cancel Council recommends using the ABCDE method for help in diagnosing suspicious moles or spots. ABCDE stands for:

  • A – Asymmetry, irregularity
  • B – Border (uneven)
  • C – Colour
  • D – Diameter (usually, but not always more than 6mm)
  • E – Evolving (changing and growing)

How to check your own skin

In addition to annual check-ups, you should check your skin around once every three months for skin cancer. Check all areas that have been exposed to the sun for any changes to existing moles and newly present spots, but don’t forget areas like those between your fingers and toes, the palms of your hands and soles of your feet, and your back. If certain areas are too difficult to see yourself, either use a handheld mirror or get a family member or friend to assist you.

If you are concerned that you may have skin cancer, make an appointment with your local SunDoctors clinic today.

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