23 December 2018
Some spots on the skin are nothing to worry about, whereas others can be deadly if not treated early. The successful treatment of skin cancer, particularly melanoma relies heavily on early detection. To give yourself the best chance of catching skin cancer in its early stages, you need to know what to look out for.
There is no definitive description of what skin cancer looks like, so becoming familiar with your own skin and regularly self-checking your body for signs of change is the best way to catch skin cancer early. Keep an eye on spots that look different to others on your body, spots that have changed in size, shape, colour or texture, and sores that itch, bleed, or don’t heal.
If you notice any of these signs, see your GP and seek their expert opinion.
Types of cancerous spots
There are three common types of skin cancers—basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma—and they can all look quite different. Below are some examples of each kind for your reference.
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) accounts for about 70 per cent of all non-melanoma skin cancer diagnoses. These types of skin cancers grow slowly over months or years, and having a BCC increases your risk of developing another.
BCC usually develops on sun-exposed areas, although it can appear anywhere on the body. You might first notice it as a pearl-coloured lump, or a slightly scaly area that is shiny and either pale, bright pink, or darker. You may notice this type of cancerous spot bleeds and becomes inflamed, and some seem to heal then flare up again.
See your GP if you suspect you have a BCC.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) accounts for about 30 per cent of remaining non-melanoma skin cancer diagnoses. These skin cancers can grow very quickly over the course of weeks or months, and are more common as you get older. Although rare, they do have the ability to spread if not treated early.
SCC usually develops on sun-exposed areas, although it can appear anywhere on the body. You might first notice it as either a thickened red, scaly or crusted spot, or a rapidly-growing lump. You may notice this type of cancerous spot bleeds and becomes inflamed, and is often tender to touch.
See your GP if you suspect you have an SCC.
Melanoma is not as common as BCC or SCC, but it is considered the most serious as it is more likely to spread if not caught early.
Melanoma can appear anywhere on the body, so it’s important to check those places not often exposed to the sun. You might first notice melanoma as a new or existing spot that has changed over several weeks or months. It can have either a flat or raised surface, and may have an irregular edge.
Melanomas can be more than one colour.
See your GP if you suspect you have a melanoma.
Types of ‘warning sign’ spots
There are two non-cancerous skin spots that should not be ignored, called dysplastic naevi and sunspots, because they act as warning signs for skin cancer.
A dysplastic naevus is a type of mole with an irregular shape and uneven colour. People with many of these spots have a greater risk of developing skin cancer.
See your GP if you suspect you have multiple dysplastic naevi to determine a suitable surveillance plan.
Sunspots, also called solar or actinic keratoses, are flat, scaly spots that feel rough to the touch and are either skin coloured or red. They are most common in people over 40 and on skin that’s often exposed to the sun.
Sunspots are a warning sign that you’ve spent too much time in the sun unprotected, and may indicate that you have a higher risk of developing skin cancer in the future.
See your GP if you suspect you have sunspots to determine a suitable surveillance plan.
Types of non-cancerous spots
Moles are very common, normal growths on the skin. If you have many moles on your body, it may run in your family, or you may have developed them as a result of increased time spent in the sun, particularly during childhood.
Moles are either brown, black, or skin coloured. They most often have a defined oval shape.
Protecting your skin from overexposure to UV radiation is the best way to reduce your skin cancer risk, as nearly all cases are caused by overexposure to UV, or spending ‘too much time in the sun’ unprotected. Learn more about how to check your skin for early signs of cancer, and follow Cancer Council SA’s blog over summer to learn more about UV radiation and skin cancer prevention.