Skin cancer: the warning signs

How do I know if I have skin cancer?

Skin cancers don't all look the same but there are some signs to look out for:

  • a spot that is different from other spots on the skin;
  • a spot, mole or freckle that has changed in size, shape or colour;
  • a sore that doesn’t heal;
  • a spot that bleeds.

It's important to get to know your skin. Examining your skin will help you notice changes and learn what is normal for you.

If you see anything new or different on your skin, see your general practitioner (GP) or a dermatologist straightaway. Skin cancers that are found and treated early need less invasive treatment and have a better outcome (prognosis).

What about spots that aren't cancer?

Not all spots that appear on your skin are cancerous. However, freckles, moles or sunspots are warning signs that your skin has had too much sun exposure and you may be at greater risk of developing skin cancer.

Moles (naevi)

A mole is a normal growth on the skin. Moles (naevi) develop when the pigment-producing cells of the skin (melanocytes) grow in groups. Moles are very common. Some people have many moles on their body and this can run in families. Overexposure to the sun, especially in childhood, can also lead to more moles growing on the skin.

Dysplastic naevi

dysplastic naevus

Moles that have an irregular shape and an uneven colour are called dysplastic naevi. People with many dysplastic naevi are at a higher risk of developing melanoma. If you have these moles, you should regularly check your skin for any changes and look for new skin spots. If you notice any changes, see your doctor immediately.

Sunspots (solar keratoses)

sunspots solar keratoses

Red, scaly spots on the skin that feel rough are called sunspots (solar keratoses). They usually occur in people aged over 40 on areas of skin exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands, foreams and legs. Some solar keratoses may develop into squamous cell carcinoma.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will first look at the suspicious spot, mole or freckle. If a skin cancer is suspected, a biopsy will usually be done to confirm the diagnosis.

Skin biopsy

A biopsy is a quick and simple procedure. Your GP or specialist will give you a local anaesthetic to numb the area. A sample will be taken from the skin spot or the spot will be completely cut out. You will usually have stitches to close the wound and help it heal.

The tissue that is cut out will be sent to a laboratory where a pathologist will examine it under a microscope. It takes about a week to receive the test results. If all the cancer is removed during the biopsy, this will probably be the only treatment required.

Dealing with the diagnosis

Most skin cancers do not pose a serious risk to your health. However, being told you have cancer can come as a shock and many different emotions may arise. If you have any concerns, ask your doctor or call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.

Last Reviewed: 1 March 2011
Reproduced with the kind permission of The Cancer Council New South Wales.

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References

Cancer Council NSW. Understanding skin cancer. Last updated March 2011. http://www.cancercouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/CCNSW-CAN734-USC-44pp-LR.pdf (accessed Jan 2013).
The Cancer Council New South Wales

The Cancer Council New South Wales

To lead, empower and mobilise the community to beat cancer.