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About Skin Cancer

Skin cancer rates in Australia are higher than anywhere else in the world. It is the most common form of cancer in Australia, affecting all age groups.
In SA, the lifetime risk of developing a skin cancer is 1/33 for men and 1/36 for women.
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What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the basal layer of the epidermis.

There are three main types of skin cancer in Australia: basal cell carcinoma; squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Melanoma starts in the pigment cells (melanocytes) while basal and squamous cell carcinomas develop from the epidermal cells.

(Carcinoma is a term used for some types of cancer).

About Skin Cancer

Our Skin

The skin is the largest organ of the body, it has several important functions.

  1. It acts as a protective layer against injury and disease
  2. It regulates our body temperature
  3. It maintains our hydration

The skin consists of three layers:

  • The epidermis, or the outer layer
  • The dermis, or the inner layer
  • The subcutaneous fat layer

The epidermis is made up of cells that produce keratin, a substance that covers the outside of the skin and resists heat, cold and the effects of many chemicals. The cells in the epidermis also produce melanin, the substance that gives our skin its colour. Melanin is able to absorb ultraviolet light and provide some protection from its damaging effects.

Types of Skin Cancer

About Skin Cancer

Signs and Symptoms

As skin cancers are visible, they can be checked as soon as they develop. Early symptoms may seem quite minor but any suspicious spot should be checked immediately.

The signs to look for are:

  • A crusty, non-healing sore
  • A small lump which is red, pale or pearly in colour
  • A new spot, freckle or mole changing in colour, thickness or shape over a period of several weeks to months (particular attention should be paid to spots that are dark brown to black, red or blue-black)
About Skin Cancer

Causes of Skin Cancer

Everyone is at risk of skin cancer. People who burn easily and rarely tan are at the greatest risk. Unprotected skin, whether tanned or not, is likely to be damaged by the sun and may develop skin cancer later in life.

Sunlight Exposure

Childhood exposure to the sun is an important factor in the development of skin cancer later in life. Research also suggests there may be a link between sunburn in childhood and melanoma in adulthood.


People who work outdoors have a greater risk of developing the common skin cancers than indoor workers. This is because of their greater exposure to sunlight. Workers in some industries have to take precautions against other known causes of common skin cancers, such as arsenic, polycyclic hydrocarbons and a number of other chemicals.

Skin Type

Skin cancer is seen most often in fair skinned people who have lived in Australia all their lives. It is most common in people of Celtic (Scottish, Irish and Welsh) background. However it also occurs in people whose parents migrated from Southern Europe e.g. Greece or Italy.

Existing Skin Damage

Solar keratosis (sunspots) are dry, rough spots on the skin that are common in people over 40. They are not skin cancers but an indication that the skin has had enough skin exposure to develop skin cancer. People with keratoses should take particular care to protect their skin from the sun. they should also be examined to make sure a skin cancer is not present.

Minimising Risk

  • Minimise your time in the sun between 10.00am – 3.00pm
  • Use shade as much as possible when outdoors
  • Wear protective clothing – a wide brimmed hat and cover-up clothing
  • Apply SPF 50+, broad spectrum sunscreen to skin which isn’t covered by clothing