Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in the world. While most cases are cured, the disease is a major health concern because it affects so many people. The incidence of skin cancer has been increasing steadily, although it is not clear why. Some experts believe that the depletion of the ozone level, which normally screens out much of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation, plays a major role. Others blame the growth of a sun-seeking culture worldwide.
If you are concerned that you or a loved one might have skin cancer, read this section to learn more about skin cancer, including the causes and various types of skin cancer. Because malignant skin tumors in time become visible on the skin's surface, skin cancer is one of the only types of cancer that is almost always detectable in its early, curable stages. Checking your skin for symptoms and suspicious changes can help detect skin cancer at its earliest stages. Early detection and diagnosis of skin cancer gives you the greatest chance for successful skin cancer treatment.
You can reduce your risk of skin cancer by limiting or avoiding exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. To learn how, take a look at our prevention guidelines.
Below are common warning signs for the three main types of skin cancer.
Basal cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma:
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. It is the abnormal growth of skin cells and most often develops on skin exposed to the sun, however can also occur on areas of your skin not ordinarily exposed to the sunlight.
There are 3 major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
The risk of skin cancer is much higher for people with light-coloured skin, compared with dark-skinned people. This is due to the protective effect of the skin pigment melanin in people with darker skin. White people with fair skin that freckles or burns easily are at especially high risk. This is one of the reasons for the high skin cancer rate in Australia, where there is intense sunshine and much of the population descends from fair-skinned immigrants from the British Isles. In fact, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70. People with a family history of skin cancer are also at greater risk. In addition, old age increases the risk of developing skin cancer.
Although skin cancer can run in families, the Skin Cancer Foundation claims that most cases of skin cancer develop because of damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, which in turn damages the genetic material inside skin cells. Like the sun, tanning booths also emit damaging UV radiation. Cells may then begin to multiply and grow out of control. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma have been linked to chronic sun exposure, typically in fair-skinned people who spend considerable time outside. Melanoma is associated with infrequent but excessive sun exposure that causes scorching sunburns.
Most skin cancers display symptoms early on. If your doctor suspects skin cancer, he or she will use certain medical tests to determine the cause of the problem. These include:
After skin cancer has been diagnosed, tests are often done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the skin or to other parts of the body. Imaging tests, including positron emission tomography (PET scan) ;computed tomography (CT scan), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may be used to identify metastases (cancer spread) in other parts of the body, such as the lungs, brain, liver, or other organs. This helps to inform treatment options.
Different treatment options are recommended for skin cancer and precancerous skin lesions known as actinic keratoses, depending on the size, type, depth and location of the lesions. For small skin cancers limited to the surface of the skin, treatment beyond an initial skin biopsy that removes the entire growth may not be needed. However, if additional treatment is needed, options may include:
Most skin cancers are preventable. Below are some guidelines to help protect you from skin cancer: