What does skin cancer look like? Some spots on the skin are nothing to worry about, but others can be life-threatening if not detected and treated early. Cancer Council SA’s Chief Executive Kerry Rowlands shares her own experience with skin cancer in the hopes of encouraging South Aussies to get to know their skin and seek an expert opinion if they notice any changes.
When it comes to the successful treatment of skin cancer—particularly melanoma—early detection is critical. To give yourself the best chance of catching skin cancer in its early stages, you need to know what to look out for.
Skin cancers can all look quite different, so becoming familiar with your own skin and regularly self-checking your skin for signs of any change and raising those concerns with your GP is the best way to detect skin cancer early.
Kerry had always been very aware of the impact of the sun. She would be the one reminding her friends and family to put sunscreen on and had been getting regular, annual skin checks for years. But 18 months ago, she noticed a new spot on her leg.
“The reason I thought it looked unusual is because it was quite a dark freckle. I’ve got lots of freckles but they’re not really that dark black. It also felt like there was this tingle in my leg there. So, when I went to do my annual skin check, I just asked the specialist to check it out,” Kerry explains.
The skin specialist had a good look at it and said it didn’t look like anything to worry about and that it didn’t have any of the usual characteristics of a skin cancer. A year later at her next skin check, the spot hadn’t changed, and she was told the same thing.
But something just didn’t feel right for Kerry—a month later she went back to her specialist and asked for it to be removed.
“Then on the Saturday, I distinctly remember it, my husband was away, and I was getting ready to go out with some friends for the day when my phone rang,” Kerry says.
“The doctor said, ‘I’m actually really surprised to be giving you a call because I’ve just got the pathology back and it’s an in-situ melanoma’.”
Melanoma is the least common type of skin cancer, making up 1–2 per cent of all skin cancers. However, it is the most serious form of skin cancer because it’s more likely to spread to other parts of the body, especially if not found and treated early.
Thankfully, they had found Kerry’s melanoma very early—an in-situ melanoma means that it has been found only in the top layer of the skin—so there was a very high survival rate of 99 per cent.
“For a freckle that was probably 2.5 millimetres in diameter, I’ve now got this beautiful scar which is probably 50 or 60 millimetres long on my leg,” Kerry says.
“That was then sent off for pathology and thankfully it came back that they were able to remove it all and it hadn’t spread into the tissue or anywhere else that required any further treatment.”
Kerry’s story is a reminder for all of us to keep an eye on spots that look different to others on your body. It’s also important to check your whole body regularly for changes to any existing spots such as size, shape, colour or texture; and any sores that itch, bleed, or don’t heal.
“Intuitively I knew that something wasn’t right and thankfully I did something about it. Maybe it didn’t have the characteristics of a melanoma on their chart, but it was something different for me in terms of my skin complexion and freckles. My message to South Australians is to follow your instinct. Know your skin and ask for action if you think that something’s wrong,” Kerry says.
How to check your skin
Get to know your skin so you can notice any changes early. With a bit of practice, most people can check their whole body in 15 minutes. Why not check your skin when you are getting dressed or getting out of the shower?
There are three common types of skin cancer—basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Here are some skin cancer images for you to reference when checking your own skin:
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer. It grows slowly over months and years and may spread to nearby tissues and organs if left untreated. BCCs are commonly red or pearly in colour and may ulcerate and fail to heal.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is less common but grows faster. It may spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. SCCs often appear as thickened scaly spots that might ulcerate, bleed and fail to heal.
Melanoma is the least common, but most dangerous type of skin cancer. Most skin cancer deaths are from melanoma. It is often fast growing and can spread to other parts of the body where it can form a secondary cancer. Melanoma is typically uneven coloured spots with an irregular shape or border.
For more information about how to check your skin for early signs of skin cancer, visit www.cancersa.org.au/prevention/finding-cancer-early/finding-skin-cancer-early
Cancer Council SA and Wellbeing SA partnered to launch the ‘Same Goes For You’ SunSmart Campaign in October. The campaign, which targets South Aussie men, highlights that when you cover things up, they last longer – same goes for your skin. For more information on the ‘Same Goes For You’ campaign, visit the Cancer Council SA website here.