Protect Yourself From Skin Cancer
Updated: Apr 29
Why do I need a professional skin check?
Australia is a fantastic country, we have great weather and lots of outdoor pursuits and because of that we get exposed to a lot of ultra-violet radiation. The ultraviolet radiation is thought to cause DNA damage to the pigment cells of the skin which can lead to development of the cancer there called melanoma.
According to the Cancer Council, Australia has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world, at nearly four times the rates in Canada, the US and the UK. Skin cancers account for 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers. WA and Queensland are particularly bad.
One of the issues with melanoma is that it can look just like another mole, just like another pigmented spot on our bodies. The melanomas tend to occur in two main areas- skin that’s exposed to ultraviolet radiation and skin that isn’t. This might sound a bit strange but melanomas can develop in areas of the body without sun exposure such as the back of the eye or sometimes even the internal organs, the genitalia and areas that really don’t see sunlight much at all. Most melanomas however do occur on skin that’s exposed to ultraviolet radiation.
You should always try and protect yourself from the sun; cover up, wear a hat, use plenty of sunscreen, avoid going out in to the sunlight at the worst time of day, and most weather forecasts nowadays actually tell you when the worst ultra violet is, even smartphone applications tell you when peak UV time is. If you can avoid sunlight at those peak and more dangerous times, that’s the best way to go.
If you think you have a suspicious spot, the first step is to talk to your GP. Your GP knows your health history and can:
• Help you understand your personal risk factors for skin cancer • Examine your skin • Treat some skin cancers • Refer you to a specialist • Provide care you might need, as well as follow up • Provide information on skin cancer prevention.
According to the Australian Melanoma institute “Doctors use a number of tools and techniques to examine skin thoroughly, beyond what the naked eye can see - melanomas that are detected and treated early are cured in 90% of cases.
Should you see your GP for skin check?
Australian general practices offer the same level of accuracy in performing skin checks as dedicated skin cancer clinics.
Importantly, your local GP will also understand your general health and family medical history and can use this to help understand your personal risk factors when it comes to skin cancer.
Doctor’s qualifications and experience:
What are the qualifications, skills and experience of the doctor examining your skin?
Does this doctor have any extra training in skin examination?
Many skin clinics and some GPs offer digital technology to assist in examining skin spots. It is important to remember that these are just tools that help the doctor make a diagnosis. The quality of the diagnosis still depends on the experience and skills of that doctor.
Getting your skin checked by a GP
When performing a skin check, your GP will generally start by reviewing your medical history to assess your risk. They will then perform an examination from the top of the head to the tip of the toes.
If a lesion is identified that could be skin cancer, your doctor may perform a skin biopsy under local anaesthetic. This will help determine whether it is cancer, and if so, assist in planning for further treatment. Pre-malignant lesions may be treated with cryotherapy, to help prevent these developing into cancer. Cryotherapy hurts momentarily.
How often should I get my skin checked?
If you have never had a skin check, speak to your GP about your personal risk factors and his or her recommendation for skin checks moving forward. If your regular GP doesn’t offer skin checks, they may be able to refer you to another doctor in the medical centre that does
The Cancer Council recommends adults should check their own skin and moles every 3 months. Those at risk are recommended to have a trained doctor examine them at least once a year.
It's important to get to know your skin and what is normal for you, so that you notice any changes. Skin cancers rarely hurt and are much more frequently seen than felt.
Develop a regular habit of checking your skin for new spots and changes to existing freckles or moles.
How to check your skin
Make sure you check your entire body as skin cancers can sometimes occur in parts of the body not exposed to the sun, for example soles of the feet, between fingers and toes and under nails.
Undress completely and make sure you have good light.
Use a mirror to check hard to see spots, like your back and scalp, or get a family member, partner or friend to check it for you.
These are some changes to look out for when checking your skin for signs of any cancer:
· New moles.
· Moles that increases in size.
· An outline of a mole that becomes notched.
· A spot that changes colour from brown to black or is varied.
· A spot that becomes raised or develops a lump within it.
· The surface of a mole becoming rough, scaly or ulcerated.
· Moles that itch or tingle, bleed or weep.
· Spots that look different from the others.
ABCDE melanoma detection guide
A is for Asymmetry - Look for spots that lack symmetry. That is, if a line was drawn through the middle, the two sides would not match up.
B is for Border - A spot with a spreading or irregular edge (notched).
C is for Colour - Blotchy spots with a number of colours such as black, blue, red, white and/or grey.
D is for Diameter - Look for spots that are getting bigger.
E is for Evolving - Spots that are changing and growing
Written by Dr Stephen Lawson