Checking for skin cancer
Skin cancer can be deadly, but it can be successfully treated if found early.
We know that 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70. It is vital that every Australian protects their skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation to prevent skin cancer from developing.
As well as protecting their skin, Australians should get to know their skin. Monitor your skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun, and consult a doctor if you notice any new spots or changes to existing freckles or moles, including the shape, colour or size of a spot.
Currently, there is no national skin cancer screening program in Australia because there is not enough evidence that it would be effective.
What causes skin cancer?
More than 95% of skin cancers are directly related to exposure to UV radiation. UV radiation most often comes from the sun, but it can also come from artificial sources such as solariums.
When your unprotected skin is exposed to the sun or other UV radiation, the structure and behaviour of your skin cells can change. This can permanently damage the skin, and this damage adds up over time.
The good news is it is never too late to start protecting your skin! The best way to avoid skin cancer is by regularly protecting your skin from UV. Every day you protect your skin, you reduce your risk.
How to check your skin
While protecting your skin from UV radiation is the best defence against skin cancer, it is also important to regularly check your skin for new or changed spots. About 95% of skin cancers are treatable if found early. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, and most melanomas are found by the person with the melanoma or their partner.
In a room with good light, undress completely and use a full-length mirror to check your whole body. You can use a handheld mirror to check areas that are difficult to see, or you can ask someone to help you.
Make sure you check your whole body, not just the areas exposed to the sun, including hard-to-see areas like your back, scalp and back of your neck.
If you notice a new spot or one that has changed, consult your doctor.
What to look for?
Skin cancer can appear anywhere on your body, so it is essential to check your whole body, not just areas exposed to the sun.
Skin cancers don’t all look the same, but there are signs to look out for, including:
- a spot that looks and feels different from other spots on your skin
- a spot that has changed size, shape, colour or texture
- a sore that doesn’t heal within a few weeks
- a sore that is itchy or bleeds.
For melanoma, the ABCDE guidelines can be helpful.
|Asymmetry||Are the halves of each mole different?|
|Border||Are the edges uneven, scalloped or notched?|
|Colour||Are there differing shades and colour patches?|
|Diameter||Is the spot greater than 6 mm across, or is it smaller than 6 mm but growing larger?|
|Evolving||Has the spot changed over time (size, shape, surface, colour, bleeding, itching)?|
Please note that some melanomas, like nodular and desmoplastic melanomas, do not fit these guidelines. So, it is important to see a doctor if you notice a new spot or one that has changed.
Who is at higher risk for skin cancer?
All Australians are at risk of skin cancer due to the high levels of UV radiation we experience. However, some Australians have a higher risk, including people who have:
- had a previous skin cancer, including melanoma
- a family history of skin cancer
- fair or freckled skin, especially those with skin that burns easily
- red or fair hair and light-coloured eyes (blue or green)
- lots of moles on their body
- worked or currently work outdoors
- had short, intense periods of exposure to UV radiation
- actively tanned or used solariums
- a weakened immune system
- certain skin conditions, including sunspots.
Frequently Asked Questions
There is no population-wide skin cancer screening program in Australia because there is not enough evidence to show that it would improve overall outcomes. However, the evidence does support people at higher risk of skin cancer having a plan with their doctor.
All other individuals should get to know their skin and seek advice from a doctor if they notice any new, changed, or suspicious spots.
Note: Protecting your skin from UV has been proven to be more effective in reducing mortality than skin checks. Use sun protection whenever the UV is 3 or above to prevent skin cancer from developing.
Currently, there is no set guideline for how often you should get your skin checked. Cancer Council recommends that you regularly monitor your own skin and visit a doctor if you notice any changed or new suspicious spot. A doctor can refer you on to a specialist if required.
People at higher risk of skin cancer should discuss a plan of how often they should check their skin with their doctor. A full skin examination, supported with photography and dermoscopy, may be necessary every six months.
Cancer Council does not operate or recommend any specific skin cancer clinics or doctors. We recommend that you visit your doctor who can refer you to a specialist, like a dermatologist, if required.
Skin cancer clinics may not necessarily offer a higher level of expertise than your doctor. Before deciding whether to go to a skin clinic, it is important you find out about the services offered, fees charged and the expertise of the employees.
Getting to know your skin and noticing any changes will help you find skin cancer early.
Recently, smartphone apps have been developed to assist with the early detection of skin cancer. Research has shown that in general, these applications can be inaccurate and should not be used instead of seeking the support of a medical professional. Cancer Council does not recommend the use of smartphone apps to self-diagnose skin cancer.