Understanding Skin Cancer

In Australia we have a sunny climate offering great outdoor life, however we have also become the skin cancer capital of the world. Sun exposure and UV radiation has been found to cause 95% of melanomas and 99% of non-melanoma skin cancers (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) in Australia. In our lifetime around 2 in 3 Australians will have a skin cancer diagnosis before their 70th birthday. More than 2000 Australians die from skin cancer every year yet many of those death can be prevented.

As with all cancers, early detection and treatment provides the best chance of survival. Alongside regular self-conducted skin check and being aware of your own skin, a thorough skin check is the key. It is recommended that everyone who grew up in Australia to have regular skin check. Your doctor will inform you how often you should have a skin check.

There are 3 main types of skin cancers:

  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) accounts for 2/3 of skin cancers
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) accounts for 1/3 of skin cancers
  • Melanoma accounts for 1/100 skin cancers

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

BCCs are the most common type of skin cancer commonly found on sun exposed skin. They can have various and sometimes subtle appearances which make them difficult to detect sometimes. They can also have different growth pattern and can grow deep into the skin if left untreated, invading nerve, tendons and bones, earning them the name of ‘rodent ulcers’. Most BCCs are locally destructive and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Certain types of BCCs such as infiltrative BCCs can have aggressive growth pattern making them challenging to treat and with a high recurrence risk.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

SCCs are commonly found on sun damaged skin such as the head/neck, arms and legs. In the early stage it often look like a pink scaly patch which may feel sensitive and slowly enlarge. Invasive SCCs are usually pink and raised and can be tender. They can sometimes grow very rapidly in a matter of few weeks. SCCs can metastasis to local lymph nodes and beyond, which means early treatment is essential.


Melanomas are often found on sun damaged skin resulted from chronic UV radiation, but can also happen in area that never seen sunlight, such as soles of the feet and genital areas. Having a lot of moles or a family history of melanoma also increases your risk of melanoma. Melanomas have the most variant morphology and no two melanomas look the same. Also, some melanomas are very slow growing and some can be very aggressive and very fast growing. About 1/3 of melanomas may arise from an existing mole, however 2/3 melanomas arise as a brand new lesion. The treatment for melanoma is primarily by surgical excision after biopsy confirmation. If the melanoma is quite aggressive then regional lymph nodes may need to be removed and checked and further treatment with an oncologist may be required.

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