Types of Skin Cancers

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in Australia. The Cancer Council estimates that around two in three Australians will experience some form of skin cancer before they turn 70. In fact, they even say that Australia has the highest rates of melanoma in the world.

This page contains an overview of all the different types of skin cancers, what to look for and how to prevent them.

It is important to note: If you are concerned that you have any signs of skin cancer, please see a doctor.

TYPES OF SKIN CANCER

Skin cancer is grouped into three main types: Basal cell carcinoma, Squamous cell carcinoma and Melanoma. Other skin lesions often associated with skin cancer include Actinic Keratosis and Atypical Moles. These are not cancerous but can often indicate future risk of cancer developing.
Basal Cell CarcinomaSquamous Cell CarcinomaMelanoma
This section also contains information about:
Actinic KeratosisAtypical Moles
These are not skin cancers but can indicate a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

There are many other types of benign lesions such as seborrhoeic keratoses and dermatofibromas which you can also read about.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

Basal cell carcinoma is one of the most common types of skin cancer and makes up roughly 70% of all non-melanoma skin cancers. People with fair skin, light hair and blue, green, or grey eyes are at a particularly high risk of developing this type of skin cancer.

BCC most often occurs on sun exposed regions of skin as it is caused by chronic sun exposure. In rare situations it can be contributed to by other factors like burns, radiation exposure, arsenical intoxication, or chronic dermatitis, but as a rule it is usually caused by sun exposure.

Basal cell carcinoma is a slow growing cancer that grows over months or years and rarely spreads to other areas of the body. It can appear in many forms and may look like:

A pearly white, skin-coloured or pink bump
- A brown, black or blue lesion
- A flat, reddish, scaly patch
- A waxy, scar-like, white lesion

Once you have developed a basal cell carcinoma, you are at a higher risk of getting more, but the earlier it is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
Basal Cell CarcinomaBasal Cell Carcinoma

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

Squamous cell carcinoma makes up the other 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers. This is a fast-growing skin cancer that grows quickly over several weeks or months. It is an invasive type of cancer that, if left untreated, can spread to other parts of the body, especially when located on the lips and ears. A small percentage of cases that are left untreated have also been known to metastasize to the body’s organs and can be fatal.

The most common cause of squamous cell carcinoma is sun exposure, and it is also more common in people with fair skin, light hair and blue, green or grey eyes. This does not make other, darker types of skin immune, and anyone can develop this type of skin cancer. Chronic inflammatory conditions and immunosuppression can also contribute to its development.

Symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma include:

- Scaly red patches
- Elevated growths with a central depression
- Wart-like growths
- Open sores

Melanoma

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, however it only makes up only 1-2% of all skin cancers.

Though the likelihood of developing melanoma is lower, it can spread quicky to other areas of the body including the lungs, liver, lymph nodes, brain and bones and be very dangerous to your health.

Anyone can develop melanoma, but it is mainly caused by unprotected exposure to the sun. Other contributing factors that put people at a higher risk include a family history of melanoma, having pale, fair or freckled skin, having a weakened immune system from immunosuppressive medicines, or a predisposition to moles.

Early detection of melanoma is crucial to its successful development. The first sign of melanoma is usually a change to an existing mole. 

These changes may include:

- Size: it may grow larger or randomly appear
- Colour: the mole may change colour or become blotchy with other shades of colour
- Shape: the spot may become irregular and be asymmetrical
- Itching or bleeding
- Elevation: the spot may begin as a raised nodule, or become raised in an area

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for melanoma.

Actinic Keratosis

Also known as solar keratosis, Actinic Keratosis is a precancerous skin lesion. Like skin cancers, it is caused by over exposure to UV radiation via the sun. This makes them very common to be found on areas like the face, lips, ears, neck, scalp, forearms and backs of your hands. These are very common spots that usually appear as scaly patches on the skin.

While these spots are not cancerous, they can increase a person’s risk of developing skin cancer and should be regularly checked and monitored by a doctor.

Atypical Moles

Atypical moles are an unusual looking and asymmetrically shaped benign mole. They are also known as dysplastic nevi and can develop anywhere on the body. They often look very similar to melanoma and do place people at a higher risk of developing melanoma, but they are not cancerous.

Due to the higher risk associated with melanoma, it is important to have these moles checked by your doctor and to continue to monitor them for changes that may indicate melanoma.
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