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Skin cancer


Diagnosing skin cancer (non-melanoma)

Checking your skin

Skin cancers don’t all look the same, but there are signs to look out for, including:

  • a spot that looks and feels different from other spots on your skin
  • a spot that has changed size, shape, colour or texture
  • a sore that doesn’t heal within a few weeks
  • a sore that is itchy or bleeds.

Check your skin for changes regularly. There is no set guideline on how often to check for skin cancer, but getting to know your own skin will help you notice any new or changing spots. If you've previously had a skin cancer or are at greater risk of developing skin cancer, ask your doctor how often you should check your skin.

Can smartphone apps help detect skin cancer? 

Some smartphone apps let you photograph your skin at regular intervals and compare the photos to check for changes. These apps may be a way to record any spot you are worried about or remind you to check your skin. However, research shows apps cannot reliably detect skin cancer and should not replace a visit to your GP or dermatologist.

If you notice a spot that causes you concern, make an appointment with your doctor straightaway.

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Health professionals

You may see one or more of the following doctors to diagnose and treat skin cancer:

  • General practitioner (GP) – treat most people with BCCs and SCCs. Treatment may include surgery and/or creams or gels. You may be referred to a dermatologist, surgeon or radiation oncologist for larger areas of abnormal tissue or cancers that are hard to remove.
  • Dermatologist – a specialist doctor who diagnoses and treats skin conditions, including skin cancer. They can perform general and cosmetic surgery and prescribe topical treatments.
  • Radiation oncologist – a specialist doctor who treats some skin cancers by prescribing and overseeing a course of radiation therapy. 
  • Surgeon – some skin cancers are treated by specialised surgeons. These include surgical oncologists, who manage complex skin cancers, including those that have spread to the lymph nodes, and plastic surgeons, who are trained in complex reconstructive techniques for more difficult to treat areas, such as the nose, lips, eyelids and ears.

When you make an appointment to see a specialist, ask what you will have to pay and how much will be refunded by Medicare. If there is a waiting list and there is a spot on your skin you are worried about, your GP can ask for an earlier appointment.

Many public hospitals have specialist outpatient clinics that provide free skin cancer treatment. Your GP can refer you. In areas without a permanent clinic, you may be able to see a visiting specialist.

Skin cancer clinics

Skin cancer clinics offer a variety of services and fee arrangements. They are usually run by GPs who have an interest in skin cancer. Research shows that clinics may not offer a higher level of skill than your GP.

In deciding whether to attend a skin clinic, consider:

  • the qualifications and experience of the medical staff – this includes whether they are members of a professional association related to treating skin cancer
  • what you will have to pay and whether it is covered by Medicare – some clinics bulk-bill the first consultation but require up-front payment for other appointments or surgery, while others require up-front payment for all services
  • the range of services offered
  • the follow-up provided.

Cancer Council does not operate or recommend any skin cancer clinics, and does not recommend any individual specialists.

Question checklist

Asking your doctor questions will help you make an informed choice about your treatment and care. You may want to include some of these questions in your own list:

Diagnosis
  • What is this spot on my skin?
  • Will I need a biopsy or excision?
  • What is my biopsy result? Do I have skin cancer?
  • What type of skin cancer is it?
  • Did the biopsy or excision remove all the skin cancer?
  • Are there clinical guidelines for this type of cancer?
Treatment
  • Do I need further treatment? If so, what treatment do you recommend?
  • Do I need to see a specialist?
  • I’m thinking of getting a second opinion. Can you recommend anyone?
  • How long will treatment take?
  • If I don’t have the treatment, what should I expect?
  • How much will the treatment cost? Is it covered by Medicare?
Side effects
  • Will I have a lot of pain? What will be done about this?
  • Will there be any scarring after the skin cancer has been removed?
  • When will I get my results and who will tell me?
After treatment
  • Is this skin cancer likely to come back?
  • How often should I get my skin checked?
  • Where can I go for follow-up skin checks?
  • Will I need any further tests after treatment is finished?
  • How can I prevent further skin cancers?

 

Main tests

Physical examination

If you notice any changes to your skin, your doctor will look carefully at your skin and examine any spots you think are unusual. The doctor may use a handheld magnifying instrument called a dermoscope to examine the spots more closely.

Skin biopsy

If your doctor feels they can diagnose the skin cancer by examining the spot, you may not need any further tests before having treatment. However, it’s not always possible to tell the difference between a skin cancer and a non-cancerous skin spot just by looking at it. If there is any doubt, the doctor may need to take a tissue sample (biopsy) to confirm the diagnosis.

A biopsy is a quick and simple procedure that is usually done in the doctor’s office. You will be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area, and then the doctor will either:

  • completely cut out the spot and a small amount of healthy tissue around it (excision biopsy)
  • take a small piece of tissue from the spot (punch or incision biopsy).

Stitches may be used to close a larger wound and help it heal. All tissue that is removed is sent to a laboratory, where a pathologist will examine it under a microscope. The results will be available in about a week. If all the cancer and a margin of healthy tissue are removed during the biopsy, this may be the only treatment you need.

Staging and prognosis

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread. BCCs rarely need staging because they don’t often spread or have other high-risk features. Only a very small number of SCCs require staging. This may be because of where the SCC is, its size or because it has spread.

Usually a biopsy is the only information a doctor needs to stage skin cancer. The doctor may also feel the lymph nodes near the skin cancer to check for swelling, as this may be a sign that the cancer has spread. Rarely, some people will have imaging scans to help with staging.

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. Your treating doctor is the best person to talk to about your prognosis. Most BCCs and SCCs are successfully treated, especially when found early. If you have any concerns or want to talk to someone, see your doctor or call 13 11 20.

Understanding Skin Cancer

Download our Understanding Skin Cancer booklet to learn more

Download now

 

Expert content reviewers:

A/Prof Stephen Shumack, Dermatologist, Royal North Shore Hospital and The University of Sydney, NSW; Dr Margaret Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Head of Radiation Oncology, Skin and Melanoma, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; John Clements, Consumer; Aoife Conway, Skin Lead and Radiation Oncology Nurse, GenesisCare, Mater Hospital, NSW; Sandra Donaldson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kath Lockier, Consumer; Dr Isabel Gonzalez Matheus, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Principal House Officer, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; A/Prof Andrew Miller, Dermatologist, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Dr Helena Rosengren, Chair Research Committee, Skin Cancer College of Australasia, and Medical Director, Skin Repair Skin Cancer Clinic, QLD; Dr Michael Wagels, Staff Specialist Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Princess Alexandra Hospital and Surgical Treatment and Rehabilitation Service, and Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland, QLD; David Woods, Consumer.

Page last updated:

The information on this webpage was adapted from Understanding Skin Cancer - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2021 edition). This webpage was last updated in March 2022.

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