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Skin cancer and melanomas

2-minute read

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Australia. Skin cancer is a disease of the body’s skin cells caused mainly by cumulative exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun.

Cancer is a disease of the cells, which are the body's basic building blocks. Cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow in an uncontrolled way. These abnormal cells can damage or invade the surrounding tissues, or spread to other parts of the body, causing further damage.

The types of skin cancer are named after the skin cell where the cancer develops:

  • Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer that 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.

The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new spot 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 many 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.

Early detection improves survival and other outcomes.

Get to know your skin. If you find a suspicious spot, see your doctor as soon as possible. Skin cancer is diagnosed by physical examination and biopsy. Biopsy is a quick and simple procedure where part or all of the spot is removed and sent to a laboratory. It may be done by your family doctor or you can be referred to a dermatologist or surgeon. Results may take about a week to be ready.

Last reviewed: July 2018

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