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What is skin cancer?

Skin cancers are very common types of cancer that occur when skin cells are damaged, for example, by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun which cause mutations inside the skin cells leading them to grow at an abnormal rate.

There are three main types of skin cancer:




Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are known as non-melanoma skin cancer. They are less invasive than melanomas but can also cause serious damage.

Approximately, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70. Non-melanoma skin cancer is more common in men, with almost double the incidence compared to women.

Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, melanoma is the third most common cancer in Australians. In 2015, 13,694 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma.

Every year, in Australia:

  • skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers

  • the majority of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun

  • GPs have over 1 million patient consultations per year for skin cancer

  • the incidence of skin cancer is one of the highest in the world, two to three times the rates in Canada, the US and the UK.

  • In 2016, 1960 people died from skin cancer in Australia, 1281 from melanoma and 679 from non-melanoma skin cancers.

*Non-melanoma skin cancers are not notified to cancer registries.

Skin cancer symptoms

The sooner a skin cancer is identified and treated, the better your chance of avoiding surgery or, in the case of a serious melanoma or other skin cancer, potential disfigurement or even death.

It is also a good idea to talk to your doctor about your level of risk and for advice on early detection.

Become familiar with the look of your skin, so you pick up any changes that might suggest a skin cancer. Look for:

  • any crusty, non-healing sores/pimples

  • small lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour

  • skin areas or lumps that bleed easily or recurrently with minimal trauma

  • spots that stand out from the others on that same area

  • new spots, freckles or any moles changing in colour, thickness or shape over a period of weeks to months.

How to diagnose a skin cancer?

Identifying a skin cancer can be very difficult even for doctors. Many times, they will look very similar with a normal mole or be almost invisible to the naked eye.

For these reasons it is very important to seek a doctor that is experienced and properly trained in the identification and treatment of skin cancers like Dr Lucas de Siqueira. During the assessment the Doctor will examine your skin with the use of a dermoscope, a special instrument that allows the doctor to see features that are not seen by the naked eye and decide it a spot looks suspicious and whether it should be treated/removed or not.  

It is also very important to check your skin regularly and check with your skin doctor if you notice any changes.

Causes of skin cancer

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, second only to New Zealand. It is a common misconception that skin cancers are exclusively caused by sun exposure. The majority of skin cancers in Australia are indeed caused by exposure to UV radiation in sunlight, but skin cancers can happen even on areas that are not exposed to the sun and anyone can be at risk of developing skin cancer regardless of previous sun exposure or not, though the risk is much higher on fair skinned people, people that are more exposed to the sun and also increases as you get older.


Sunburn causes 95% of melanomas, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

In Australia, 1 in 8 adults and 1 in 5 teenagers are sunburnt on an average summer weekend. Many people get sunburnt when they are taking part in water sports and activities at the beach or a pool, as well gardening or having a barbeque.

Sunburn is also common on cooler or overcast days, as many people mistakenly believe UV radiation is not as strong. This is untrue - you can still be sunburnt when the temperature is cool.

Sun exposure that doesn't result in burning can still cause damage to skin cells and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Evidence suggests that regular exposure to UV radiation year after year can also lead to skin cancer.


A tan is not a sign of good health or wellbeing, despite many Australians referring to a "healthy tan". Almost half of Australian adults still hold the misguided belief that a tan looks healthy.

Tanning is a sign that you have been exposed to enough UV radiation (from the sun or solarium) to damage your skin. This will eventually cause loss of elasticity (wrinkles), sagging, yellowish discolouration and even brown patches to appear on your skin. Worst of all, it increases your risk of skin cancer.

A tan will offer only limited protection from sunburn, usually equivalent to SPF3, depending on your skin type. It does not protect from DNA damage, which can lead to skin cancer.

Some people who use fake tans mistakenly believe it will provide them with protection against UV radiation. As a result, they may not take sun protection measures, putting them at greater risk of skin cancer.


Solariums emit UVA and UVB radiation, both known causes of cancer. The Australian Cancer Council does not recommend solarium use for cosmetic tanning under any circumstances.

As of January 2016, commercial solariums were banned in all states in Australia.


Some people have a genetic predisposition to develop skin cancers. 


Smoking is believed to be associated with an increased risk in the development of skin cancers. 

Immuno Suppressive Medications 

Some medications that reduce the functionality of your immune system can also triggers the development of skin cancers. These are not medications that are commonly used and are normally only used for specific medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, for the treatment of some cancers and others. It is important to let your skin doctor know which medications you are using or have used in the past. 


Old burn scars are more likely to transform into Squamous Cell Carcinomas

Preventing skin cancer


Protect your skin!


The best way to know how much protection you need is to know the UV index on that day. There are several apps that will let you know exactly the current UV level and the intensity of sun protection you need, like the SunSmart app which can be downloaded for free on the app store of your phone.

For best protection, when the UV level is 3 or above, we recommend a combination of sun protection measures:

  • Slip on some sun-protective clothing - that covers as much skin as possible

  • Slop on broad spectrum, water resistant SPF30+ sunscreen. Put it on 20 minutes before you go outdoors and every two hours afterwards. Sunscreen should never be used to extend the time you spend in the sun.

  • Slap on a hat - that protects your face, head, neck and ears

  • Seek shade

  • Slide on some sunglasses - make sure they meet Australian standards.

Be extra cautious in the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.


Skin Cancer Council Australia -

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