Australians are four times more likely to develop a skin cancer than any other form of cancer. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, and each year in Australia more than 1,700 people die from skin cancer. However, over 95 per cent of cancers are curable cancers as long as it's detected and treated early!


Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged, for example, by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. It is a disease of uncontrolled abnormal cell growth in the tissues of the skin. There are three main types of skin cancer – melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma).

The most dangerous form is a melanoma. It arises from cells in the skin which produce a brown pigment (melanin), the substance which gives skin its colour. It appears as a new spot, or an existing spot, freckle or mole that changes colour, size or shape. It usually has an irregular or smudgy outline, can be more than one colour (brown, black, red, white and/or light grey) and grows over weeks to months anywhere on the body, including armpits and other places that do not see the sun. Fortunately melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer but is the most deadly and if untreated can spread quickly to other parts of the body and form secondary cancers.


Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Anyone can be at risk of developing skin cancer, including people with dark skin. However these people are most susceptible:

* Have a light complexion (red or fair hair; blue or green eyes; skin that burns easily, freckles and doesn't tan)

* Older people

* Exposed to a lot of sun during childhood and adolescence

* Have episodes of severe sunburn

* Have a family history of melanoma

* Have a large number of moles

* Are immunosuppressed (including organ transplant recipients)



The sooner a skin cancer is identified and treated, the better your chance of avoiding surgery or, in the case of a serious melanoma or other skin cancer, potential deformity or even death. More than 95 per cent of skin cancers are cured if treated early!

It's important to get to know your skin and what is normal for you, so that you notice any changes that could be skin cancer. Skin cancers rarely hurt and are much more frequently seen than felt. Five minute checks, every three months is all it takes so you become familiar with what is there so you can pick up on any changes. Make sure you check your entire body as skin cancers can sometimes occur in parts of the body not exposed to the sun, for example soles of the feet, between fingers and toes and under nails.

If you find a spot/sore/lump and notice any of the following, see your doctor:

* Asymmetry (unevenness) – one half of the spot doesn't match the other.

* Border – the edges of the spot are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.

* Colour – the colour of the spot is not the same all over and may include shades of brown/black, red, white or blue.

* Diameter – the spot is larger than 6mm across or is growing larger.

* Evolution and/or elevation – the spot may change in shape or size (enlarge) and a flat spot may become raised in a matter of a few weeks.


If you notice any changes or anything unusual consult your doctor. Your doctor may perform a biopsy (remove a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope) or refer you to a specialist if he/she suspects a skin cancer.

Body checks are valuable, however prevention is even more important. The majority of skin cancers in Australia are caused by exposure to UV radiation in sunlight. Avoid unnecessary exposure to the sun and use hats, sunscreen and cover up when you are in it.


Skin cancers are almost always removed. In more advanced skin cancers, some of the surrounding tissue may also be removed to make sure that all of the cancerous cells have been taken out.

Common skin cancers can be treated with ointments or radiation therapy. They can also be removed with surgery (usually under a local anaesthetic), cryotherapy (using liquid nitrogen to rapidly freeze the cancer off), curettage (scraping) or cautery (burning).