I’m not sure what skin cancer is?
This disease of the body’s skin cells is a common form of cancer and is generally caused from exposure to the suns ultraviolet radiation (UVR). The abnormal cells can grow, divide, invade and spread without the boundaries of normal limits. Skin cancers are often referred to as skin lesions and a skin check with your GP is recommended. There are two types of skin cancer, non-melanoma and melanoma.
I’ve been told I have a non-melanoma skin cancer?
The two categories of non-melanoma skin cancer are Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). The most common is the BCC, which usually develops like a sore that does not heal. It can appear ulcerated, round, raised, red or pearly coloured and is best diagnosed by your GP.
An SCC is less common but can have a more aggressive appearance being thickened, red, ulcerated and potentially bleed. Both these non-melanoma skin cancers can appear on areas of the body that have been exposed to UVR and both have treatment options if detected early.
Is a Melanoma common?
This is a less common form of skin cancer but if left untreated, can be deadly. A melanoma has the potential to spread to other parts of the body and can grow over weeks to months. This unfriendly skin cancer can occur on areas of the body regardless of exposure to UVR. A Melanoma can appear as a new or current spot, mole or discolouration. It usually has an irregular outline and can change in colour, shape or size. Some patients who have already experienced melanomas are predisposed to further melanomas and should have regular skin checks.
Your GP may refer you to a plastic surgeon for surgery to remove any of the three skin cancers.
Ultraviolet radiation (UVR):
Within the sunlight, UVR rays cause sunburn and skin damage. The result can be premature ageing skin and skin cancer. The damage occurs immediately and prolonged exposure is cumulative so the damage continues to build without the sunburn effect. You cannot see UVR rays and they are not related to the temperature so damage can still occur on a cloudy or rainy day. Some light coloured and shiny surfaces can reflect UVR (eg. Water, snow, sand)
What are my risk factors for skin cancer?
Anyone in Australia can develop skin cancer but the risk is increased for people who:
- are exposed to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) during childhood and adolescence
- have repeated exposure to UVR over their lifetime
- have episodes of severe sunburn
- have a light complexion (red or fair hair; blue or green eyes; skin that burns easily, freckles and doesn’t tan)
- are older
- have a had a previous non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC)
- have a personal or family history of melanoma
- have a large number of moles
- have unusual types of moles (eg dysplastic naevus)
- are immunosuppressed (including organ transplant recipients)
6. Is it possible to develop skin cancer if your skin does not burn?
Yes. Anyone can develop skin cancer regardless of whether or not their skin burns. Although people with fair skin are at a greater risk of developing skin cancer, people with tanned skin are also at risk of developing skin cancer if they do not protect their skin when going outdoors.
7. Does a tan provide protection against developing skin cancer?
No. Any form of a tan which has been obtained from exposure to UVR (from natural or artificial sources) increases your chances of premature ageing and developing skin cancer. People with naturally tanned or darker skin have very limited protection to UVR (roughly equivalent to SPF2 sunscreen) and will still need to protect their skin when going outdoors. Fake tanning products do not offer protection against the risk of developing skin cancer. Some fake tanning products do contain sunscreen, but at most, this will only offer protection for a few hours after application of the product.
8. Is it possible to safely obtain a tan from exposure to ultraviolet radiation?
No. Any form of a tan from UVR (whether from the sun or artificial devices such as solaria) will damage your skin and increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
9. Are solariums or sunbeds a safe way to tan?
No. Solariums and sunbeds emit UVR and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Go to the Solaria/solariums fact sheet for more information.
10. Do you only need to protect yourself from the sun when it is hot and sunny?
No. UVR, which causes sunburn and skin damage, cannot be felt or seen. It is not related to, or indicated by heat, high temperatures or light, and therefore can be present days when it is not hot and sunny (such as cloudy, hazy or breezy days).
11. Can you only be harmed by the sun during the middle of the day?
No. You can be harmed by the sun anytime during the day (especially when the UVR is high). In general, the most dangerous times to be out in the sun are 10am – 2pm (or 11am – 3pm during daylight savings), when the UVR level is at its highest.
12. Is it only old people who need to look for changes in their skin?
No. People of all ages need to regularly check their skin for changes as skin cancer does not only affect old people. In fact, melanoma is the most common cancer for the 15-24 year old age group.
13. How much sun exposure is required to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D?
It has been estimated that fair skinned people can achieve adequate vitamin D levels in summer by exposing the face, arms and hands or the equivalent area of skin to a few minutes of sunlight on either side of the peak UV periods on most days of the week. In winter, in the southern regions of Australia where UV radiation levels are less intense, maintenance of vitamin D levels may require 2-3 hours of sunlight exposure to the face, arms and hands or equivalent area of skin over a week 1. It is important to be adequately protected from the sun, whenever the UV Index is 3 or more and particularly during peak UVR times.