Should I be checked for skin cancer?
The best way to protect yourself from skin cancer is to use sun protection and have regular skin examinations by a doctor who is trained in using dermoscopy (using a device to see the skin close up). If you are at high risk of skin cancer (see below), full skin examinations are recommended every 6 months.
Early detection of skin cancer can improve the chances of successful treatment. You should become familiar with your skin, even the skin that is not normally exposed to the sun, and 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 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 skin cell where the cancer develops:
- Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. It begins in the melanocyte cells of the skin and can spread to other organs in the body.
- Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma 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 increases if you:
- have someone in your family who has had skin cancer
- have had bad sunburn before
- have fair skin
- 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 medication
You can also use this online calculator to work out your likely risk of melanoma.
Who should 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 pick up any changes. Most melanomas are found by individuals themselves 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 magnifying lens to look at any suspicious spots on your skin.
If your doctor suspects a skin cancer, they may remove it or perform a biopsy (removing a small sample of tissue for detailed examination at a laboratory). Alternatively, they may refer you to a specialist.
What does a skin cancer check cost?
If you have a Medicare number, part or all of the doctor’s consultation fees will be covered. If your doctor refers you to a specialist, ask the specialist clinic about fees and how much in out-of-pocket costs you may have.
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.
What follow-up is involved?
Your doctor will probably discuss the results of your skin examination with you. If you are told you have skin cancer, your doctor will probably talk about the treatment options with you. If you need a skin biopsy, you may be asked to come back for the results. If nothing suspicious is found, ask your doctor when you should return for your next skin check.
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Last reviewed: December 2020