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About skin cancer
Skin cancer can hide in plain sight and in places we might not expect.
UV radiation causes damage to the skin cells DNA and can mutate into cancer that can spread to different parts of your body, such as the liver, lung and brain. In rare cases skin cancer can become deadly within six weeks.
Although we can’t feel or see UV radiation, we can see UV damage to our skin as it changes colour –- which could be red from sunburn or what people often call a ‘tan’. At any time, skin cancer signs will also become visible, in the form of new spots, changes in colour or shape of existing spots.
Know your skin
More than 70% of skin cancers are diagnosed by people other than health professionals. As you can see and are familiar with your skin, you are more likely to detect skin cancer. That’s why it’s important to get to know your skin and check it regularly.
If you detect or notice changes to your skin, and see your doctor at an earlier, more easily treatable stage, you can enjoy more of what life has the offer.
Learn more about checking for skin cancer
What is skin cancer?
Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the skin.
The three main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. BCC and SCC are also called non-melanoma skin cancer or keratinocyte cancer, while they are more common than melanoma treatment for any type of skin cancer can be painful, leading to ongoing treatment requirements and life-long surveillance.
In Australia, melanoma is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and each year kills thousands of people. In 2022, more people died from melanoma then they did on our roads.
Types of melanoma
The most aggressive forms of melanoma can become life-threatening in as little as six weeks and if untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body. The major subtypes are:
- Superficial spreading melanoma (55–60% of melanomas) – this is the most common type of melanoma in people under 40, but it can occur at any age. It can develop on any part of the body but especially the trunk, and often grows slowly. It becomes more dangerous when it invades the lower layer of the skin (dermis).
- Nodular melanoma (10–15% of melanomas) – this type is most commonly found in people over 65. It is usually found on sun-damaged skin on the head and neck. It is a fast-growing and aggressive form of melanoma, spreading quickly into the lower layer of the skin (dermis).
- Lentigo maligna melanoma (10–15% of melanomas) – most people with this type of melanoma are over 40. It is mostly found on sun-damaged skin on the face, ears, neck or head. It may grow slowly and superficially over many years before it penetrates more deeply into the skin.
- Acral lentiginous melanoma (1–2% of melanomas) – a rare type of melanoma that mostly affects people over 40. It is most commonly found on the skin on the soles of the feet or palms of the hands, or under the fingernails or toenails. It tends to grow slowly before becoming invasive.
- Desmoplastic melanoma (1–2% of melanomas) – a rare type of melanoma that mostly affects people over 60. It is mostly found on sun-damaged skin on the head or neck. It tends to spread slower than other types of melanoma but is often diagnosed later.
Signs of melanoma
Melanoma can grow quickly and vary greatly in the way it looks. The first sign is often a new spot or a change in an existing mole:
- Size – the spot may appear or begin to grow larger
- Colour – the spot may become blotchy with different depths and shades of colour (brown, black, blue, red, white, light grey, pink or skin-coloured)
- Shape or border – the spot may increase in height, become scaly, have an irregular shape (scalloped or notched) or lack symmetry (the halves look different)
- Itching or bleeding – the mole may itch or bleed very easily
- Elevation – the spot may start as a raised nodule or develop into a raised area, which is often reddish or reddish brown.
More information on melanoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer and starts in the squamous cells of the skin. SCCs can grow quickly over several weeks or months.
Some are found only in the top layer of the skin. These are called SCC in situ, intra-epidermal carcinoma or Bowen’s disease. If SCC invades through the basement membrane it is called invasive SCC. If left untreated, this can spread to other parts of the body (metastatic SCC). SCC on the lips and ears is more likely to spread.
Signs of SCC
- Usually appears on parts of the body most often exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands, forearms and lower legs, but can start anywhere.
- Often appears as a thickened, red, scaly or crusted spot or rapidly growing lump.
- May bleed and become inflamed, and is often tender to touch.
More information on squamous cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
BCC is the most common type of skin cancer and starts in the basal cells of the skin. BCC usually grows slowly over months or years and only rarely spreads to other parts of the body. If left untreated, some BCCs can grow deeper into the skin, invade nerves and damage nearby tissue, making treatment more difficult.
Signs of BCC
- Develops on areas that get more sun exposure, such as the head, face, neck, shoulders, lower arms and legs, but can occur anywhere on the body.
- May appear as a pearl-coloured lump or slightly scaly area that is shiny and pale or bright pink, or some may appear darker.
- The skin may break down (ulcerate), bleed and become inflamed. It may appear to heal and then become inflamed again.
More information on basal cell carcinoma
Skin cancer risk factors
While skin cancer can affect anyone, there are certain risk factors that can increase your chances of being diagnosed.
Genetic risk factors include:
- Pale or freckled skin, especially if it burns easily.
- Red or fair hair and light-coloured eyes (blue or green).
- Certain skin conditions such as sunspots.
- Lots of moles, or moles with irregular shapes and uneven colour.
- A previous skin cancer or a family history of skin cancer.
- A weakened immune system or are using immunosuppressive medications.
Behaviours that increase your skin cancer risk include:
- People who stay outdoors to intentionally change their skin cell colour (tanning) or have used solariums.
- People who work outdoors and receive up to 10 times the UV exposure of indoor workers.
- No matter who you are, if you spend time outdoors when the UV is 3 or above you are exposing yourself to UV radiation. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation, particularly a pattern of short, intense periods of sun exposure and sunburn, such as on weekends and holidays, will increase your risk of skin cancer.
If you meet any of the above criteria, see your doctor to develop a surveillance plan and check your skin regularly for any changes.
What causes skin cancer?
More than 95% of skin cancers are caused by exposure to UV radiation.
UV radiation most often comes from the sun, but it can also come from artificial sources, such as arc welders, glue curing lights for artificial nails, and solariums.
Solariums are now banned for commercial use in Australia as research shows that people who use solariums have a much greater risk of developing skin cancer.
Learn how to protect your skin
Skin cancer statistics
- More than two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.1
- About 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year.2
- Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.3
- Medicare records show there were over a million treatments for squamous and basal cell carcinoma skin cancers in 2018 – that’s more than 100 skin cancer treatments every hour.
- Basal and squamous cell carcinoma skin cancers accounted for one quarter of all cancer-related hospitalisations in 2014–15.4 The cost to the health system of these skin cancers alone is estimated to be more than $700 million annually. The costs to the Federal Government and the community from basal and squamous cell carcinomas are predicted to continue to increase in the future.5
- In 2021, 2,824 Victorians were diagnosed with melanoma and 291 lost their lives.6
- It is estimated that approximately 200 melanomas and 34,000 other skin cancer types per year are caused by occupational exposures in Australia.7
1. Staples MP, Elwood M, Burton RC, Williams JL, Marks R, Giles GG. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia: the 2002 national survey and trends since 1985. Med J Aust. 2006;184(1):6–10.
2. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Causes of Death, Australia, 2017. Vol. 3303.0. Australian Bureau of Statistics: Canberra, Australia, 2018.
3. Ferlay J, Soerjomatram I, Ervik M, Dikshit R, Eser S, Mathers C, Rebelo M, Parkin D, Forman D, Bray F. GLOBOCAN 2012 v1.0, Cancer Incidence and Mortality Worldwide: IARC CancerBase No. 11. IARC, World Health Organisation, 2013.
4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer in Australia 2017. Cancer Series no.101. Cat.no. CAN 100. AIHW: Canberra, Australia, 2017.
5. Fransen M, Karahalios A, Sharma N, English DR, Giles GG, Sinclair RD. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia. Med J Aust. 2012;197(10):565–8.
6. Victorian Cancer Registry. Cancer in Victoria: Statistics & Trends 2021 Cancer Council Victoria: Melbourne, Victoria, 2022. 7. Fritschi L, Driscoll T. Cancer due to occupation in Australia. Aust N Z Public Health. 2006;30(3):213–9.
7. Fritschi L, Driscoll T. Cancer due to occupation in Australia. Aust N Z Public Health. 2006;30(3):213–9.
Cancer Council’s Skin Cancer Statistics & Issues
Our position statements
Cancer Council Australia’s Skin Cancer Committee has developed several position statements addressing common myths and misunderstandings to help Australians reduce their skin cancer risk.
Many of the statements have been developed with input from other expert health organisations, particularly the Australasian College of Dermatologists.
Read our SunSmart position statements
The best way to ensure skin cancer is found early is to get to know your skin and what’s normal for you.
Most skin cancers can be successfully treated if found early.
Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate. Watch our stories from people just like you.
Skin cancer education, resources and support.