Normal, healthy freckles and moles usually have a smooth edge and an even colour. Skin cancers don’t all look the same but there are some signs to look out for including:
It’s important to get to know your skin. Checking your skin every three months or as recommended by your GP will help you notice any new or changing moles, freckles and spots, and learn what is normal for you.
Find a room with good light and a full length mirror or, if you are on your own, a handheld mirror to check difficult-to-see areas.
Undress completely and examine your skin, each body part at a time, until you have checked your whole body. Pay particular attention to your face, neck, shoulders, arms, back of your hands, back, legs, bottom of the feet and between the toes.
If you see anything new or different on your skin, make an appointment with your GP or a dermatologist straightaway. Skin cancers that are found and treated early need less invasive treatment and have a better outcome (prognosis).
See the SunSmart website for further information on how to conduct a skin check.
Your doctor will look at all your skin, including any spots you have identified as changed or suspicious. If a skin cancer is suspected, the doctor will usually take a tissue sample (biopsy) to confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy is a quick and simple procedure, and is usually performed in the doctor’s office.
Your GP or specialist will give you a local anaesthetic to numb the area. A small piece of tissue will be taken from the skin spot or the spot will be completely cut out. You will usually have stitches to close the wound and help it heal.
The tissue that is cut out will be sent to a laboratory where a pathologist will examine the cells under a microscope. It takes about a week for the results of your tests to be ready.
If all the cancer is removed during the biopsy, this will probably be the only treatment you need. For more information on how to protect your skin after treatment, see follow up.
Most skin cancers do not pose a serious risk to your health. However, being told you have cancer can come as a shock and you may feel many different emotions. If you have any concerns or want to talk to someone, see your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. The doctor most familiar with your situation is the best person to talk to about your prognosis.
Most skin cancers are successfully treated if found early. Nearly everyone with non-melanoma skin cancer that has treatment will be cured.
Usually a biopsy is the only information a doctor needs to determine the stage of a non-melanoma skin cancer.
Staging is a way to describe its size and whether it has spread beyond its original size. In some cases of SCC, lymph nodes may be examined to see if the cancer has spread.
If you have a suspicious spot, there are a number of health professionals you may see.
Skin clinics offer a variety of services and fee arrangements. Clinics are usually operated by GPs who have an interest in skin cancer, although some clinics are operated by dermatologists who are specially trained in this area.
Skin cancer clinics may not necessarily offer a higher level of expertise than your family GP. In deciding whether to go to a skin clinic, it is important you find out about the services offered and the expertise of the staff.
There are four main points to consider when choosing which skin clinic to attend:
Cancer Council does not operate or recommend any specific skin cancer clinics or doctors.
Reviewed by: Dr Richard Lewandowski, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Director of Surgery, Mater Adults Hospital, QLD; Prof H Peter Soyer, Chair, Dermatology Research Centre, The University of Queensland, School of Medicine, Acting Head, South-West Cluster & PA-Southside Clinical School, Deputy Head, School of Medicine, Director, Dermatology Department, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Carole Arbuckle, Helpline Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Irena Brozek, Research and Development Officer, Health Strategies, Cancer Council NSW; Julie Fraser, Consumer; Jenny Lawrence, Consumer; Dr Matheen Mohamed, Consultant Dermatologist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Margaret Whitton, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Department of Dermatology, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW.