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Should I be checked for skin cancer?

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Skin cancer mainly develops in skin cells that have been damaged by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
  • Your risk of skin cancer increases as you age, and if you or a family member have had skin cancer.
  • You’re also at increased risk if you have fair skin, many moles, have had bad sunburn in the past, if you spend a lot of time outdoors, or use solariums or sun lamps.
  • You should monitor your skin regularly, and see your doctor if you notice any new spots or changes to existing moles.
  • If you’re at a high risk of skin cancer you should see your doctor for a full skin check every 6 months.

How can I protect myself from skin cancer?

The best way to protect yourself from skin cancer is to use sun protection and monitor your skin regularly.

If you are at high risk of melanoma (see below), skin self-examination is recommended every 3 months. You should also have full skin examinations by a doctor trained in using dermoscopy (using a device to see your skin close up) every 6 months.

Early detection of skin cancer can improve your chances of successful treatment. It’s a good idea to become familiar with your skin, even skin that is not normally exposed to the sun. Tell a doctor if you notice any change in shape, colour or size of a mole or freckle, or if you develop a new spot.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer mainly develops in skin cells that have been damaged by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. You can reduce your risk of skin cancer by using sun protection.

There are 3 main types of skin cancer, named after the type of skin cell where the cancer develops:

  • Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. It begins in the melanocyte cells of your skin and can spread to other organs in your body.
  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are called non-melanoma skin cancers. These skin cancers are more common, but less likely to spread.

Skin cancers do not usually cause any symptoms. However, you may notice changes in the appearance of an area of your skin.

Am I at risk of skin cancer?

Everyone is at some risk of developing skin cancer. Your risk increases as you grow older. Most skin cancers are caused by over-exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

Your risk of skin cancer is higher if you:

  • have had skin cancer before, or someone in your family has had skin cancer
  • have previously had bad sunburn
  • have fair skin, light eyes, or red or fair hair
  • have many moles on your skin
  • spend a lot of time outdoors without sun protection or work outdoors
  • have used solariums or sun lamps
  • have a compromised immune system or are taking immunosuppression medicines

You can also use this online calculator to work out your likely risk of melanoma.

Should I have a skin cancer check?

If you think you have a high risk of skin cancer, speak to your doctor. It is also important you become familiar with your skin so that you can notice any changes early. Most melanomas are found by individuals or by their partners or other family members.

Look out for:

  • any crusty sores that don’t heal
  • changes to the colour, size, shape or thickness of moles and freckles over a period of weeks or months
  • new spots
  • small lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour

If you notice any of the above, it’s important to see your doctor.

What happens during a skin cancer check?

Your doctor will probably ask you some questions to assess your risk of skin cancer. You will usually need to undress (leaving your underwear on) for the skin examination. Your doctor may use a special device with a light and a magnifying lens to look at any suspicious spots on your skin.

If your doctor finds a suspicious spot on your skin, they may remove it or perform a biopsy (removing a small sample of tissue for detailed examination at a laboratory). They may refer you to a specialist.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

What does a skin cancer check cost?

If you have a Medicare number, part or all of the doctor’s consultation fees may be covered. If your doctor refers you to a specialist, ask the specialist clinic about fees and how much you will have to pay in out-of-pocket costs.

How can I get checked?

Speak to your doctor about being checked for skin cancer and discuss any areas of your skin that are worrying you.

Using a smartphone app to diagnose skin cancer is not recommended, as it hasn’t been shown to be accurate.

What follow-up is involved?

Your doctor will discuss the results of your skin examination with you.

If you need a skin biopsy, your doctor will discuss the process.

If you have skin cancer, your doctor will discuss the treatment options with you.

If nothing suspicious is found, ask your doctor when you should return for your next skin check.

Read more about skin cancer prevention and treatment, as well as the 'ABCDE' of skin cancer when checking your skin.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Resources and support

For more information and support, try these resources:

Other languages

Do you prefer to read languages other than English?

  • For skin cancer information through an interpreter, call the Australian Government’s Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National) on 13 14 50.
  • Cancer Council NSW’s website is available in several languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Vietnamese and more and offers fact sheets in multiple languages.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2023

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