Your back is commonly exposed to the sun, so everyone is at risk of developing skin cancer there. It's especially hard to apply sunscreen to our backs ourselves and it's easy to miss spots we can't reach or see.
It's not just sunburn that puts us at risk either. Any sun exposure can lead to damage to the DNA of skin cells, causing cancer. And unfortunately, even areas of our bodies that don't see any sun can also be prone to skin cancer.
Therefore, those who are most at risk of developing skin cancer on their backs must have regular skin checks with their doctor. Early detection of skin cancer boosts your chances for successful treatment and can stop it from spreading to other parts of your body.
Can you get skin cancer on your back?
Skin cancer can develop anywhere. It is most common on areas that see lots of sun exposure, including your back. Skin cancer is most likely to be discovered by a change in the skin's appearance. As it's hard for us to see our own backs, skin checks are vital for catching skin cancer in its earliest stage.
Risk factors for back skin cancer
- Spending a lot of time in the sun
- A history of sunburn
- Light-coloured eyes and hair or fair skin
- A family history of skin cancer
- Have a weakened immune system due to certain diseases, drugs or medications
- Many moles or many atypical moles
- Have used ultraviolet light to treat skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis
- Actinic keratosis (sunspots)
Common skin cancers that can appear on your back
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
Rare skin cancers that can appear on your back
It's important to be aware of these less common skin cancers because they can sometimes be mistaken for non-cancerous conditions and hard to diagnose.
- Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans
- Merkel cell carcinoma
- Kaposi's sarcoma
- Sebaceous gland carcinoma
- Paget's disease
Treatment options for skin cancer on your back
Depending on which type of skin cancer is detected on your back, your doctor may recommend one of the following methods of treatment.
- A biopsy of a suspicious lesion on your back will be the first step toward a diagnosis.
- If a cancer diagnosis is made, your doctor may recommend mohs surgery. This is a minor procedure that requires only local anesthetic and has very few side effects.
- If your skin cancer is not suitable for surgery, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy.
What does back skin cancer look like?
Skin cancers can appear in many different forms, depending on the type and other factors, such as your skin type. Some skin cancers can have a similar appearance to common skin conditions and are often mistaken for them.
Squamous cell carcinoma can appear as a scaly red patch, an open sore or raised growth with a depression in the middle. They may also look like a patch of rough or thick skin. Sometimes they can crust, itch or bleed.
Basal cell carcinoma can also appear like an open sore that does not heal on its own. It may also look like a patch of red or inflamed skin. Often they can be a skin-coloured bump or pink growth, or a shiny nodule. They can also look like a scar or they may develop tiny blood vessels within them.
Melanoma skin cancer is commonly thought to begin in existing moles. However, this is only in about 20% of cases. The rest begin in seemingly healthy looking skin. The best way to spot a melanoma is to be watchful of new moles, freckles or skin lesions or sores. Always see your doctor if you notice any changes in an existing mole.
How to check your back for skin cancer
It can be difficult to check your back yourself, so ask a trusted person to help you, or examine your back using a hand-held mirror. Look for changes including any new skin growths or moles, or for changes to existing moles such as an irregular borders or edges, asymmetry, a change in colour or growth in diameter or height. Follow the 'abcde' technique for more information.
What to do if you suspect skin cancer
If you notice a skin cancer warning sign, it's important to act fast.
Talk to a doctor
A doctor who specialises in skin cancer detection and treatment will be able to check your back and the rest of your body for any suspicious-looking spots or bumps. If they find anything of concern, they can recommend further testing and cancer treatment options. Your doctor can also provide you with important skin cancer facts and tips on prevention.
Get a skin check
Skin checks for your whole body should be performed one to two times a year by a qualified doctor. Your doctor may recommend them more frequently if you have had skin cancer previously or if you fall into one of the above risk categories.
Prevent future cases
- Apply SPF sunscreen every day. If you don't have anyone to help you apply sunscreen to hard-to-reach places such as your back, one idea is to use a long-handled lotion applicator. Using aerosol sunscreens is not recommended.
- Cover up with clothing. Wear long-sleeve shirts when out in the sun and wear a good-quality rash shirt when at the beach, when swimming or exercising. It's said that rash vests can also help prevent muscle soreness, so that's an extra reason to wear one when running or hiking in the elements.
- Avoiding sunlight at the hottest parts of the day when the UV Index is high can help prevent sun damage, the leading cause of skin cancer.
The signs and symptoms of skin cancer are easy to miss in a location such as your back. But it's important to seek your doctor's advice if you do notice any changes to the surface of your skin or unusual patches or lumps that don't seem right to you. Skin cancers can have several causes, but by far the main one is sun damage. So follow sun safety guidelines and use protection when you know you'll be spending a large amount of time outside.
SunDoctors have clinics all across Australia and it's easy to book an appointment for a whole body skin check. It only takes a few minutes but you'll have peace of mind knowing our doctors have got your back when it comes to skin cancer detection and treatment.