There are essentially three types of skin cancers.
- Melanoma – the least common but most dangerous
- Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) – the most common but least dangerous
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) – somewhere in between the above two
Melanomas are the most dangerous form of skin cancer, affecting over 11,000 Australians each year. They are rare in children, but are the most common fatal disease in 15 to 30 year olds. The incidence increases with age thereafter. Early excision is vital for survival.
What does a melanoma look like?
Most melanomas are diagnosed by the ABCDE rule, but there are important exceptions.
A – Asymmetry
Healthy moles are typically round, so look for those with an irregular shape.
B – Border
Healthy moles typically have a smooth, even edge, so look for those with a notched or uneven edge.
C – Colour
Healthy moles are typically a single shade of brown, so look for those that have colour variation – two or more colours.
D – Diameter
Healthy moles are usually smaller than 5-6mm, so look for those that are larger in size.
E – Evolving
Healthy moles usually do not change size over time, so look for those that become larger or change in height.
Exceptions to the ABCDE rules
An amelanotic melanoma does not contain melanin. It is therefore red, pink or skin coloured. It may be raised, flat or ulcerated.
Nodular melanoma is a highly dangerous type of melanoma that grows quickly. It can appear as a new small, round lump on the skin that may be black, brown, pink or red in colour. It usually feels firm to the touch and, over time can begin to bleed and crust. It grows quickly and can be life-threatening if not detected and removed promptly.
It is important that you get to know your own skin so that you can recognise new or changed moles. In addition it is advisable to have an annual professional skin check with special instruments to detect melanomas at the earliest possible stage when treatment is most effective.
BASAL CELL CARCINOMA (BCC)
This is the most common type of skin cancer, with almost 300,000 cases being diagnosed each year in Australia, and usually occurs in people over the age of 40. It grows from cells in the bottom (basal) part of the outer layer of your skin, and the growth tends to be quite slow, taking a period of months or even years. Only rarely does this type cancer spread throughout the body. However, while it is the least dangerous, it should not be taken lightly and needs to be treated. BCCs appear most commonly on the face, head, neck and trunk areas of the body, and can occur in difficult to treat areas such as on the eyelids and lower legs. In most cases BCCs are curable, and you can achieve excellent cosmetic results, especially if caught early.
Types of BCCs
Nodular and nodular-ulcerative
A common type of BCC, they usually occur on the face. They grow slowly, beginning as small pearly round, hard, red or red-grey lumps. But, if left untreated, they will grow larger and begin to ulcerate.
These are the least aggressive of BCCs. Mainly found on the body, they appear as a scaly red, round to oval patch, up to 3cm in diameter. But if left untreated they can grow as large as 10-15cm without any ulceration. The edge of this type can be difficult to distinguish. They may be a little itchy at times.
Seen more often in darker skinned people, such as Latin Americans, and Asian cultures, these BCCs are very similar to the nodular BCCs, but with areas of pigmentation (darker areas). Because of its appearance, it could be confused with the more serious melanoma.
These look a little like firm yellow-white scars and are often mistaken for them. The borders are usually indistinct, so they can be bigger than you first think. As they have an aggressive growth pattern, it’s very important to get early treatment – they can invade muscles, nerves and bone if left alone.
SQUAMOUS CELL CARCINOMA (SCC)
The second most common form of skin cancer, these can grow much more quickly than a BCC, and have the ability to spread throughout the body (metastasise).
What does a SCC look like?
It looks like a scaly pink lump or wart-like growth, which may also develop a crust, bleed and ulcerate. You’re likely to find a SCC on areas that have been exposed to the sun – face, ears, head, lips, forearms and back of hands. It’s not usually painful, but can be tender or sting a little.