There’s no denying it, the stats around skin cancer are scary – a whopping two in three Australians will be diagnosed some form of the disease during their life. But that’s no excuse to stick your head in the sand. Skin cancer is one of the most preventable and detectable types of cancer.
Alarmingly, only 36 percent of us have had a skin check within the past year and 29 percent of people have never had a check at all, according to research by life insurance and income protection company TAL.
“Early detection of skin cancer is key to increasing the chances of successful treatment," Dr Sally Phillips, TAL General Manager, Health Services, told Women's Health. "The survival rate for early stage melanoma is 98 per cent, but that figure slumps to less than 50 per cent for stage four skin cancers."
Dr Phillips says that's why it’s critical that we check ourselves regularly in addition to getting regular professional skin checks. So what do both personal and professional skin checks involve? Here is everything you need to know about the symptoms of skin cancer, when to get a skin check, where to get a skin check, how much skin checks cost and how to do your own skin check.
Types and symptoms of skin cancer
There are three different types of skin cancer and they are named after the type of skin cell they start from – melanoma skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.
Melanoma is the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in Australia and arguably the most dangerous – it kills more young Australians than any other single cancer. Melanoma forms in the skin's pigment cells and it can develop rapidly if left untreated, entering the bloodstream or lymphatic system and spreading to other parts of the body. Melanoma can appear in a new or existing spot, mole or freckle, and signs to look out for are changes in colour, size or shape. They occur most frequently on the upper back in men and on the lower leg in women.
2. Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma starts in the upper layer of the epidermis and is often found on lips, ears and the scalp. Symptoms include red, scaly areas that bleed easily, painful sores that won't heal and ulcers. It's one of the most common forms of skin cancer. It's not considered as dangerous as melanoma but it can spread to other parts of the body if not treated.
3. Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma develops in the lower layer of the epidermis and is most commonly found on body parts that receive significant sun exposure like the head, neck, face, shoulders and back. Symptoms can display as a pearly lump or dry, scaly, area that is shiny and pale or bright pink in colour.
How to do a skin check at home
The sooner a skin cancer is detected, the better your chance of less invasive and more effective treatment. It's important to regularly check your skin and assess existing and new spots, freckles and moles.
Research found that the majority of Australians (72 per cent) admit that they don’t know the key signs to look for when examining their skin.
"One way to become familiar with your skin is by using the using the Skin Cancer College of Australasia (SCAN) method," Dr Phillips says.
SCAN means looking for a spot, freckle or mole that is:
Sore, scaly, itchy, bleeding, tender and doesn’t heal within six weeks.
Changing in appearance, size, shape or colour.
Abnormal: Looks different, feels different, or stands out when compared to others.
New: Most melanomas – and all other skin cancers – arise this way. It is important to check your face, neck, ears and back as well as the front and back of the torso and buttocks, arms, legs, hands (including palms), feet (including soles), and between your fingers and toes (including nails), groin, genital areas and scalp.
The Cancer Council also has some important tips for how to complete a skin check properly.
- Undress completely in bright lighting
- Use a mirror to check hard to reach areas, like your back and scalp. Or, get a friend, family member, or partner to check it for you
- Make sure you check your entire body – including the soles of your feet, under nails and between fingers and toes – as skin cancers can develop in parts of the body that don't receive sun exposure
How often should you do a self skin check?
"We want to encourage people to make a habit of regularly self-checking their skin every few months so that they can start to identify signs of skin cancer early," Dr Phillips says."If you do spot anything abnormal, get to your GP or skin cancer clinic straight away for further investigation.”
What is a professional skin check?
Even if you haven't noticed anything out of the ordinary it's important to have a specialist GP or dermatologist assess your skin. Doctors use a number of tools and techniques to examine skin meticulously, beyond what the naked eye can see.
A typical skin check will begin with a chat about your skin cancer risk factors like family history, skin type, and history of sun damage. After this you will have a full body skin examination. This involves taking your clothes off (leaving your bra and undies on). Your doctor will often ask you to point out any spots that concern you before examining your skin with a dermatoscope (which looks like a small microscope). Your doctor will determine whether you'll need to return to have abnormal spots photographed for ongoing assessment, or removed and biopsied.
"Having a skin check is quick and easy – it only takes 15 minutes and could save your life," Dr Phillips says.
Where can you get a skin check?
There are a number of places you can go to get a professional skin check and evidence shows that there is no difference in the accuracy of diagnosis.
1. General practitioner
Your regular doctor can perform a skin check, however you can also ask if your practice has a GP who has additional training in dermoscopy, which is how moles are assessed using a dermatoscope. GPs can perform an examination, treat some skin cancers and refer you to a specialist if necessary.
2. Skin cancer clinic
There are a many skin cancer clinics that can perform examinations. These are usually run by GPs with a focus on skin cancer. Although some may have done extra training, doctors are not required to have special qualifications to work in a skin cancer clinic.
Your doctor can refer you to a dermatologist for a second opinion or treatment. Be sure to find out about fees and what is covered by Medicare.
How often should you get a skin check?
Once a year.
“In addition to regular self-checks, it’s important to get annual skin checks by a professional," Dr Phillips said. "Our research reveals that women are actually worse than men at getting skin checks with a quarter (26 per cent) of males stated they have never had a professional skin check compared to a third (32.2 per cent) of females."
How much do skin checks cost?
Prices vary depending on where you choose to get your skin check. Many GPs and skin cancer clinics bulk-bill, while some charge a fee ranging up to a couple of hundred dollars.
This summer TAL is offering free skin checks at locations around the country, head here for more information.
What happens if they find something suss?
If your doctor determines that a spot is suspicious, they will need to perform a biopsy to find out if it is cancerous. This involves a local anaesthetic to numb the area before the mole and some surrounding tissue is removed with a scalpel and sent away to be tested by a pathologist. The wound will be closed with a couple of stitches.
You should receive the results of your biopsy within about a week and you will most likely have a follow up appointment with your doctor to discuss them.