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Do You Know the 7 Warning Signs of Skin Cancer?

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Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, so every Australian needs to be aware of their skin and any changes to it. You probably already know that the earlier skin cancers are diagnosed, the better we can treat them. That's why it's so important to learn the signs of skin cancer so that you know exactly what to look for when checking your own skin.

But how well do you know the signs of skin cancer? In this article, we'll look at the warning signs you need to watch for on your skin and on existing moles.

Key Takeaways

  • There are different warning signs for melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell skin cancer.
  • The SCAN technique is a great method for detecting any irregularities.
  • The earlier you diagnose skin cancer, the better, so it's important to regularly check your skin.
  • Symptoms are effects that can only be determined by the patient whereas a third party (like your doctor) can observe signs.

7 Warning Signs of Skin Cancer

  1. Changes in the appearance of a mole
  2. New moles
  3. Itchiness or oozing
  4. The surface of a mole becomes scaly, rough or ulcerated.
  5. A sore or spot that won't heal or go away.
  6. Suspicious spots or lumps
  7. Any quickly growing or developing mass, mole or lump.

1. Changes in the appearance of a mole

Normal moles rarely change in appearance on their own, and any changes could indicate the presence of cancer cells. Signs to look out for include changes in colour, size, shape, texture or symmetry in existing moles. You should also take note of any itching, tingling, pain or discomfort you may experience in an existing mole.

2. New moles

New moles can appear later in life, and though usually benign, are more likely to be skin cancers. Of particular concern is any new mole that doesn't look like your existing moles.

If you notice a new mole (especially if you're over 25), it's always worth having it checked, even if it's just to provide peace of mind. Remember, in the case of melanoma, it doesn't necessarily appear in a body area exposed to the sun, with melanomas being known to appear between toes, under armpits and in the genital area.

3. Itchiness, pain or oozing

Moles are typically painless to the touch and won't even be noticed during day-to-day activities. Normal skin irritation can happen to anyone, but moles or marks that are constantly itching need to be checked, especially if it is accompanied by any oozing or any other signs on this list. If you're also experiencing pain or itching in the surrounding skin, this could also indicate something isn't quite right.

4. The surface of the mole becomes scaly, rough or ulcerated

Moles are usually smooth to the touch, if they're even noticeable by touch at all. By scaly, we mean any scab-like, rough texture, wound-like features, any flakiness or any type of inflammation or unusual texture, especially if this texture is a new development and has a reddish or brown colour.

5. A sore or spot that won't heal or go away

Sores can happen for several reasons, but any open sore that doesn't heal is worth having looked at by a professional, particularly if it is on skin exposed to the sun or anywhere you've had blistering sunburns. If the sore doesn't heal, bleeds, is growing, or is rough to the touch, it could be a sign of squamous cell carcinoma or Basal cell carcinoma. 

6. Suspicious spots

When people develop skin cancer, suspicious spots (whether they're unusual moles, bumps or marks) are tell-tale signs. Most times, new spots will turn out to be something harmless, like an age spot or a skin tag, but it's better to have them checked and be safe, rather than sorry.

7. Any quickly growing or developing mass, mole or lump

Malignant tumours or cancers evolve and change over time, so if any mole, lump, or mark on your skin changes, you need to have it examined. This is true even of an area you've already had examined and cleared. Depending on the type of skin cancer, it can evolve rapidly so make sure to book an appointment as soon as you notice a change.

Do different types of skin cancer have different signs?

To best explain skin cancers and their warning signs, it's important to know not all skin cancer is the same. Most skin cancers will be one of the following: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell skin cancers. Each have different signs, so it's important to aware of the signs of each so you know when to visit your doctor.

Melanoma skin cancer

The most dangerous and aggressive form of skin cancer, it's important melanoma is detected early. When it reaches deeper layers of tissue, lymph nodes and distant organs, survival rates decrease rapidly and treatment becomes much more invasive.

Melanoma warning signs to watch for

  • Lack of symmetry in a mole or spot.
  • Borders that are blurred or notched. Also, if the borderline of a mole increases.
  • Change in colour or odd colours such as blue, white, red, black or grey. Multiple colours in a single mole are also a concern.
  • A mole with a growing diameter or over 10mm in size.
  • Any signs that a mole or spot is changing over time.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

basal cell carcinoma

It is the most common form of skin cancer and is usually found in sun-exposed areas in older people, though young people aren't immune. This occurs when mutations occur in the DNA of the basal cells.

Basal Cell Carcinoma Warning Signs to watch for

  • An open sore that doesn't heal. This could persist for weeks or heal and come back again.
  • A reddish patch or an irritated area
  • A shiny bump or nodule
  • A small pink growth
  • A yellow, waxy scar-like area.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous Cell Carcinoma on face

Squamous cell carcinomas are a type of skin cancer more common in people over fifty. It tends to be found in areas that experience sun exposure.

Signs to watch for:

  • Rough, scaly patches
  • Open sores, sometimes with raised borders
  • Firm, dome-like skin growths or wart-like growth
  • Sore developing from an old scar
  • Brown or dark spot

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Skin doctor checking patient's skin

Merkel cell carcinoma is a very rare form of skin cancer, however, it is also deadly if left untreated.

Signs to watch for:

  • Can look like a sore that won't heal.
  • A fast-growing spot that sometimes bleeds.
  • A pink or red lump.

SCAN for early skin cancer detection

Doctor checking patient's skin

The Skin Cancer College Australasia offers a helpful outline for identifying suspect spots with its SCAN guide. We recommend checking your skin in the shower regularly, although for a thorough check, you'll need to lose your clothes and find a partner or family member to help check spots that you can't reach.

Remember, skin cancers can develop in areas that aren't exposed to the sun such as your palms and soles of your feet, the scalp and even under fingernails and toenails. These are the signs to look out for:

How to check for skin cancer signs using the SCAN detection method

  • S is for Sore. If the spot is tender, bleeding, itchy or hasn't healed within six weeks.
  • C is for Changing. If the spot has changed shape, size, texture or colour.
  • A is for Abnormal. If the spot looks or feels different to the rest of your freckles and moles.
  • N is for New. If you see any new spots developing, particularly if you're over the age of 40.

Skin Cancer Signs vs Symptoms - What's the Difference?

The key difference between signs and symptoms is who observes them. When a patient notices pain, discomfort or something unusual about their body, this is considered a symptom.

If the issue is observable by another party (such as a doctor) then it is classified as a sign. A quick example is that if you have COVID-19, a fever would be a sign whereas any loss of taste or smell would be a symptom because a doctor can measure the first but can only take your word on the second.

Signs of a disease

Signs are objective, observable characteristics that can be measured by both the patient and a third party.

For example, skin lesions and scaly patches are both signs a doctor can examine. As you can imagine, observable signs make diagnosis much easier for a doctor than if a patient only has symptoms.

With skin cancer, signs include the physical characteristics of the mole, which is why a skin check is such an effective means of diagnosing skin cancer.

Symptoms of a disease

Symptoms are apparent to the patient themselves but are considered subjective. This includes things like fatigue, headaches, and even pain.

This is not to say that symptoms aren't as real or important, as describing your symptoms to a doctor can help them determine exactly what your issue may be and help them find signs of illness. A good example is where in your body you're experiencing pain provides your doctor with an idea of what to examine.

What you can do to minimise your skin cancer risk

Woman with sunscreen in hand

We're all at risk of skin cancer, no matter our age or whether you have lighter or darker skin. However, there are a few factors that may increase your risk.

If you...

  • Sunburn often
  • Have red or fair hair
  • Have fair skin
  • Work or exercise outside often
  • Have a family history of skin cancer

If any of these factors apply to you, pay close attention to the signs discussed above and schedule regular skin checks.

Luckily, there are many ways we can minimise the risks

  • Stay in the shade during the heat of the day while the sun exposure is at its strongest.
  • Slip, slop, slap, seek and slide to minimise exposure to UV radiation and avoid excessive sun exposure.
  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen for extra sun protection.
  • Book regular skin checks with a doctor.

What to do if you notice signs of skin cancer

It's important to check your skin regularly, all over your entire body for anything unusual. If you ever notice any of the signs of skin cancer, especially changes in the shapes, sizes and colours of moles, book an appointment by free calling on 13SKIN (13 75 46) or via our website to book online

While two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before they reach 70, with better awareness and care we'll ideally be able to diagnose more skin cancers early and minimise the impact.

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