Skin cancer and you


OUR skin is the largest organ of the body and acts as a barrier to protect the body from injury, control body temperature and prevent loss of body fluids. But even something that does such a good job at helping to protect us, can itself be subjected to serious conditions such as cancer.

What types are there?

The three main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. BCC and SCC are also called non-melanoma or keratinocytic skin cancers.

Rare types of skin cancer include Merkel cell carcinoma and angiosarcoma, but they are treated differently from BCC and SCC. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out more about rarer skin cancers.

The signs of skin cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancers


  • Usually develops on sun-exposed areas of the body, such as the head, face, neck, shoulders, back, lower arms and lower legs, but it can occur anywhere on the body
  • May appear as a pearl-coloured lump or as a slightly scaly area that is shiny and pale or bright pink in colour, although some BCCs have a darker colour
  • May bleed and become inflamed; some BCCs seem to heal then become inflamed again
  • Tends to grow slowly over months or years


  • Usually appears on parts of the body most often exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands, forearms and lower legs, but it can start anywhere on the body
  • May bleed and become inflamed, and is often tender to touch
  • Often appears as a thickened red, scaly or crusted spot or rapidly growing lump
  • Is more common as you get older
  • Tends to grow quickly over several weeks or months


Superficial melanoma

  • Can appear as a new or existing spot on the body that changes size, shape or colour over several weeks or months
  • Often has an irregular edge and either a flat or raised surface
  • May be more than one colour (brown, black, blue, red, white, light grey, pink or skin coloured)


What causes skin cancer?

The main cause of all types of skin cancer is overexposure to UV radiation. When unprotected skin is exposed to UV radiation, the structure and behaviour of the cells can change.

Most parts of Australia have high levels of UV radiation all year round. UV radiation cannot be seen or felt and it is not related to temperature, but it can cause:

  • Sunburn
  • Premature skin ageing
  • Damage to skin cells, which can lead to skin cancer.

To help understand when to protect yourself from the sun, see The UV Index and sun protection times.


How to check your skin

In a room with good light, undress completely and use a full-length mirror to check your whole body. To check areas that are difficult to see, you can use a handheld mirror or ask someone to help you.

  • Face and scalp
  • Neck and shoulders
  • Front and back of your arm, including armpit
  • Front and back of hands, between your fingers and under the fingernails
  • Legs
  • Between toes and on soles of feet

If you notice anything new or changes to your skin, make an appointment with your general practitioner or dermatologist straightaway. Skin cancers that are found and treated early need less invasive treatment and have a better outcome (prognosis). Visit SunSmart’s checking for skin cancer for more information about checking your skin.