Prevention » Information Sheets » Finding Skin Cancer Early

Finding Skin Cancer Early

Prevention » Information Sheets » Finding Skin Cancer Early

Finding Skin Cancer Early

  • Two out of three Australians will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime
  • Most skin cancers can be treated successfully if they are found and treated early
  • It is important to get to know what is normal for your skin
  • If you notice any changes or have any concerns see your general practitioner (GP) as soon as possible
  • Check all of your skin, not just sun–exposed areas

What is skin cancer?

The three main types of skin cancer:

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

  • Appears as a round or flattened lump or scaly area
  • Is red, pale or pearly in colour
  • Grows slowly, over months or years
  • Usually on the head, neck and upper torso but may also appear on other parts of the body
  • May become ulcerated, bleed or fail to heal

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

  • Looks like a red scaly spot, usually thickened, which may bleed easily or ulcerate after some time
  • Often painful, especially when touched touched
  • Usually grows over weeks to months and may spread if not treated
  • Appears on parts of the body most often exposed to the sun

Melanoma

  • Is the most serious form of skin cancer and the least common
  • Appears as a new spot, or an existing spot, freckle or mole that changes colour, size or shape
  • Usually has an irregular or smudgy outline and is more than one colour
  • Sometimes can appear as a lump with little or no brown pigment, as a reddish patch or like a blood blister
  • Grows over weeks to months, anywhere on the body (not just in places that get a lot of sun)
  • If untreated, cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body.

Know your skin

Unlike many other cancers, skin cancer is often visible, making it easier to detect in the early stages. Most skin cancers that are diagnosed and treated early can be cured.

Get to know what is normal for your skin and be alert to any changing moles, freckles or spots. Cancer Council recommends you check your skin regularly and if you notice any changes, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Everyone can check their own skin. It helps to have someone assist you with those difficult to see places. If you have a partner or someone you feel comfortable with, ask them to help you. With a bit of practice most people can check their whole body in 15 minutes. Why not check your skin when you are getting dressed or getting out of the shower?

When you examine your skin you will need a full length mirror and a hand-held mirror. You will need to undress completely. The room you use will need to be well lit.

  • Use a full length or hand-held mirror to check the skin on your back and the back of your neck or ask someone else to have a look for you
  • Don’t forget to check your armpits, inner legs, ears, eyelids, hands and feet
  • Use a comb or hair dryer to move sections of hair aside and inspect your scalp

 When checking your skin, look for:

  • Any new spot, lump or unusual freckle, mole, sunspot or sore that wasn’t there before and/ or doesn’t heal
  • A spot that looks different from other spots around it
  • A spot that has changed colour, size or shape over a few weeks or months, has an irregular border, or becomes itchy or bleeds

 If you notice any changes, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Getting your skin checked

General Practitioner (GP)

If you find any changes or have and skin cancer concerns, the first step is to see your GP. Your GP knows your full history, can examine your skin and advise you regarding appropriate care. GPs are able to treat some skin cancers but can also refer you to a specialist if necessary. They can also talk to you about your personal risk factors and sun protection behaviour in general.

Specialist - ie a dermatologist

Your GP may refer you to a specialist for treatment or a second opinion. Specialist doctors who treat skin cancer include dermatologists (doctors who have completed extra training in skin diseases), plastic surgeons and some general surgeons.

 If you would like to see a specialist, keep in mind the following:

  • You should have a referral from a GP. You can see a dermatologist without a GP referral but under Medicare your rebate will be smaller than if you had a referral.
  • Ask about fees and what proportion will be covered by Medicare.
  • There may be a long waiting list. If your GP is concerned about a particular spot, they should organise an earlier appointment.

Skin Cancer Clinic

Some people may prefer to visit a skin cancer clinic, rather than a GP. There are many skin cancer clinics offering a variety of services and fee arrangements. Skin cancer clinics are usually operated by GPs and may offer bulk billing for some of their services. You don’t need a referral to go to a skin cancer clinic.

Research has shown that doctors in general practice and those working in skin cancer clinics diagnose skin cancer with similar accuracy. Although some may have done extra training, doctors are not required to have special qualifications to work in a skin cancer clinic.

Cancer Council ACT does not operate, endorse or recommend any individual skin check service providers or skin cancer clinics and cannot recommend particular doctors.

Questions to ask

Whoever you decide to see, these are some questions you should ask:

Doctor’s qualifications and experience

  • What are the qualifications, skills and experience of the person examining your skin?
  • Does this doctor have any extra training in skin examination?
  • Some doctors may offer digital technology to help examine skin spots. It is important to remember that these are simply tools to help the person examine your skin. The quality of the diagnosis still depends on the experience and skills of that doctor.

Costs

When making an appointment always ask if bulk-billing is available and what other costs may be involved. For example, the doctor may need to do a biopsy to test a spot, or remove the whole spot. These procedures may involve extra charges that may not be bulk billed.

  • What costs are involved? Ask how much each procedure will cost and how much is refundable through Medicare. If you are in a private health fund, check first if any of these procedures are covered by your plan.
  • If the clinic uses scanning technology, do they charge more for storing your images.

 Diagnosis and Treatment

If you are told you have skin cancer, make sure you ask:

  • What type of skin cancer do I have?
  • How extensive is the skin cancer?
  • Do I need treatment immediately?
  • What are the treatment options and the benefits and risks of the treatment options?
  • Will I be referred to a specialist (if you haven’t seen one already)?
  • Will the skin cancer clinic or specialist keep my GP informed of my diagnosis and any treatment I have?

 The risks of treatment can be minor but should be discussed with your doctor. Risks can include infection, pain and permanent scarring.

Information and Follow up

Once you have had your skin examined, and/or any necessary treatment you should be provided with information about:  

  • Preventing skin cancer. What sun protection is needed?
  • What follow-up is required?

 Cancer Council ACT recommends five simple steps to protect your skin when the UV Index is 3 or above: 

  1. Slip on some sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
  2. Slop on SPF30+ broad-spectrum sunscreen.
  3. Slap on a hat – that protects your face, head, neck and ears.
  4. Seek shade.
  5. Slide on wrap-around sunglasses

Further information and resources

This information is based on current available evidence at the time of review. For further information or advice contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 or view Cancer Council Australia's Position Statement: Screening and early detection of skin cancer.

This information can be photocopied for distribution.

Last updated August 2016