Skin Cancer Information
How Serious is Skin Cancer?
Almost 3 out of 4 Australians will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. Over 200,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer each year. It kills more than 1,000 Australians every year, and many of these deaths are preventable.
Melanoma is a deadly skin cancer if not treated early, and accounts for about 70% of these annual deaths. The remaining 30% of deaths result from the more common types of skin cancer (BCC and SCC) when they have grown too large and/or have spread throughout the body.
What Is Melanoma?
Melanoma is a skin cancer that arises from the pigment forming cells in the skin called melanocytes. The majority form from excessive sun exposure. About half of melanomas arise from moles while the other half arises on normal appearing skin. Melanoma is the most dangerous of the common types of skin cancer. Melanoma is completely curable when it is detected early and treated promptly.
What does melanoma look like?
Melanoma usually appears as an enlarging coloured skin spot. They can have various shades of brown, black and blue. They can be flat or raised. A small proportion of melanoma are not colourful, but appear as a changing “skin coloured” spot. Because of this, any changing skin spot should be reported to your doctor. Remember that the majority of melanoma have no symptoms when they are found. Some may be itchy, and bleeding is a late sign. Melanoma, like other skin cancers, are only very rarely irritating to the touch. In the majority of cases they are detected solely by their appearance.
Treatment of Early Melanoma
Complete surgical removal is the treatment of choice for early melanoma. In most cases, the surgical procedure is relatively small. Most likely, even when early melanoma has been verified, no additional treatment, except for surgery will be necessary.
What is a Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) ?
BCC is the commonest cancer known to humans. They are formed from excessive sun exposure and are found on most skin sites exposed to the sun. They are usually pale to pink-red, flat or raised spots.They can grow relatively quickly (obvious changes are usually seen within 12 months) but sometimes are slow growing. They may bleed after minor irritation. Later they may “break down” forming ulcers. While they virtually never spread to other organs of the body via the bloodstream (ie. they do not metastasise), they can cause massive destruction at their local site if ignored.
How are BCCs treated?
There are many different treatments for BCC. The commonest remains surgical excision (ie. cutting the tumour out). Other treatments include cryotherapy (liquid nitrogen freezing), laser therapy, curettage and cautery, Aldara (imiquimod) cream, photodynamic therapy and radiotherapy. The choice of treatment depends on the characteristics of the tumour, its site on the skin and the age of the patient.
What is a Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) ?
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second commonest skin cancer. They are caused by excessive sun exposure and can occur on any site exposed to the sun. Many arise from pre-existing sunspots. They appear as relatively rapidly growing, scaly, flesh coloured to pale pink, raised spots. Later they may break down forming ulcers. They only spread to other organs in the body (metastasise) in about 2 out of 100 cases. By far the commonest treatment is surgical excision.
Sunspots (solar keratoses, actinic keratoses) are premalignant skin lesions ie. may turn into skin cancer at a later time. They are caused by excessive long-term sun exposure. They are seen as relatively flat, scaly, and often red areas on sun-exposed skin. While sunspots are not cancerous they can turn into skin cancer (SCC, squamous cell carcinoma). While the potential for a single sunspot to turn cancerous is low, the more you have the more likely you are to get skin cancer.
The treatment involves only superficial destructive procedures. The most common treatment is cryotherapy. This therapy involves liquid nitrogen freezing which results in destruction of the top layer of your skin – the epidermis. There are also some creams which are effective in removing sunspots.
What Are Moles or Naevi?
Most people have a number of small coloured spots on their skin. These lesions are called moles, birthmarks, freckles or naevi. Naevi may be present at birth or are acquired during life. It is important to differ common moles from melanoma
Treatment of Suspicious Moles
Sometimes, even with the latest equipment in skilled hands, it is impossible to determine if a mole is benign or malignant. Your doctor may decide to biopsy or surgically remove a suspicious looking mole for your safety. The biopsy is examined through a microscope, a procedure called histopathology.
The result from histopathology informs your doctor whether the mole was benign or melanoma, and if further treatment is required.