What is Skin Cancer?

Skin Cancer

There has been a number of public awareness campaigns aimed at reducing the number of skin cancer sufferers in Australia, and with good reason. Skin cancers are the most common type of cancer present in society and account for 80% of newly diagnosed cancers. A staggering two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70, though many of these are benign and not a threat to one’s life.

The three common cancer types are basal cell carcinomas (BCC), squamous cell carcinomas (SCC), and the dreaded melanoma. The classification is based on the type of cell the cancers originate from, and the different types have varying characteristics and risks along with differing management plans.

The basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, especially when aged over 40 years. Males and those with paler skin are more likely to develop BCCs. These skin lesions are described as typically having a raised and “pearly” appearance and are usually caused by UV light therefore are often found on the head and neck. Sometimes small blood vessels can be seen within the growths. BCCs are slow growing and rarely spread to other areas. There are a number of treatment options including cutting them out or burning/freezing. Regardless of treatment type there should be lifelong follow-up.

The squamous cell carcinoma are also usually found on sun exposed areas, are more common in males and those with paler skin. SCCs are generally faster growing than BCCs, and are described as having a red and “scaly” appearance that will later create an ulcer and often bleed. Surgical removal with lifelong follow-up is the usual treatment option.

The malignant melanoma is the most feared skin cancer. Approximately one in one hundred people will experience a melanoma. People with fair skin, multiple moles, a family history of melanomas, and a history of excessive UV exposure are more likely to develop melanomas. Melanomas are often irregular and asymmetrical in shape and have a varied colour, and can be elevated from the skin. Melanomas can later ulcerate and bleed. Melanomas are more deadly than the other skin cancers as they grow quickly and often spread to other places in the body early. Treatment for melanomas is typically surgical excision with a large portion of tissue removed. Lymph nodes may also have to be removed, and other treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy may have to be used.

Whilst exposure to the sun (UV light) is the primary cause, other factors may contribute to developing skin cancers including smoking tobacco, some genetic conditions and exposure to radiation or artificial UV exposure e.g. tanning salons.

It is important to keep an eye on your own skin and also to have regular skin checks by a trusted professional. If you notice a spot or abnormality that concerns you, particularly if it’s changing in appearance or starting to bleed or ulcerate, or if you have a sore that won’t go away then you should discuss this with your doctor. The earlier treatment is started for skin cancers the better the outcome and the less invasive the treatment will be.

Reference: Cancer Council Queensland website




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