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Skin cancer


There are two types of skin cancers:

  • Melanoma – is a rare and serious type of cancer that begins in the skin and can spread to other organs in the body.
  • Non-melanoma skin cancer – refers to a group of skin cancers that affect the upper layers of skin.

The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole. This can happen anywhere on the body, but most often on the back, legs, arms and face.

In most cases, melanomas have an irregular shape and have more than one colour. They may also be larger than normal moles and can sometimes be itchy or bleed.

Non-melanoma skin cancers are usually named after the type of skin cell from which they develop. The two most common types are:

  • basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
  • squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

Early detection improves survival and other outcomes. National screening programs for cancers in Australia have contributed to substantial declines in associated mortality during the last decade.

See your doctor if you notice any change to your moles. They can often diagnose melanoma after an examination, although they will usually refer you to a specialist in skin conditions (dermatologist) or a specialist plastic surgeon if they think you have melanoma.

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (National cancer and screening data in Australia), NHS Choices, UK (Melanoma, Skin cancer - non-melanoma)

Just diagnosed

In most cases, a suspicious mole will be surgically removed (known as an 'excision biopsy') and sent to a pathology laboratory to see if it is cancerous.

Relative survival after diagnosis of melanoma of the skin is very high when compared with other cancer sites.

If melanoma is diagnosed and treated at an early stage then the main treatment is surgery, although your treatment will depend on your circumstances.

If non-melanoma skin cancer is suspected, your doctor should be able to confirm the diagnosis by carrying out a physical examination. However, they will probably also do a biopsy.

The outlook for non-melanoma skin cancer is usually very good. Unlike most other types of cancer, there is a considerably lower risk that the cancer will spread to other parts of the body (known as 'metastasis').

Sometimes, skin cancer can be diagnosed and treated at the same time. In other words, the tumour can be removed and tested and you may not need any further treatment because the cancer is unlikely to spread.

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Cancer of the skin - melanoma), NHS Choices, UK (Melanoma, Skin cancer - non-melanoma)


Living with

The leading cause of all types of skin cancer - melanoma and non-melanoma - is exposure to sunlight.

The chance of your melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer returning is higher if your previous cancer was particularly widespread and severe. You can reduce your chances of developing either, by avoiding overexposure to ultra-violet UV light, using sunscreen and dressing sensibly, avoiding sunbeds and regularly checking your skin for signs of melanoma.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Melanoma, Causes of skin cancer - non-melanoma)

Facts & figures

  • Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australia, with around 400,000 new cases per year.
  • For those cancers diagnosed in 1992 – 97, relative survival one year after diagnosis of melanoma of the skin was 96.9% for males and 98.6% for females. Five years after diagnosis relative survival was 90.0% for males and 94.6% for females.
  • It is estimated that basal cell carcinoma will spread to other parts of the body in less than 0.5% of cases. The risk is slightly higher in cases of squamous cell carcinoma, which spreads to other parts of the body in about 4% of cases.
  • Approximately 90% of people with basal cell carcinoma will achieve a complete cure. Between 70% and 90% of people with squamous cell carcinoma will be completely cured.

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Cancer of the skin - melanoma, Non-melanoma skin cancer: general practice consultations, hospitalisation and mortality), NHS Choices, UK (Skin cancer - non-melanoma)


Last reviewed: 
February, 2013