Skin Cancer – What You Need to Know

As the weather gets warmer and you spend more time outdoors, it’s important to keep up with your monthly skin checks. Use a mirror to check your entire body, and ask someone to help you examine hard-to-see areas like the backs of your legs or arms.


Skin cancer can be prevented by using sunscreen and avoiding sun exposure. You should also talk to your doctor about your family history and personal risk factors for skin cancer.


Melanoma is a cancer of the skin that starts in the cells that produce pigment (colour). The cells normally grow and spread in an orderly way, pushing older cells toward the surface of the skin. But sometimes they develop DNA damage that makes the cells behave differently and become cancerous. It’s not clear what causes this damage, but exposure to sunlight and using tanning beds increases your risk.

Melanomas can start on normal-appearing skin or in a mole. Most people have between 10 and 40 moles by the time they’re adults, but melanoma can also appear in places where there aren’t any moles. It’s important to know what your moles look like, so you can spot any changes and see your doctor immediately. The ABCD rule is a good place to start: Look for asymmetry, border that is uneven or ragged, colour that isn’t uniform and a change in size.

If your GP suspects melanoma, they’ll refer you to a specialist, such as a dermatologist or surgeon. You may also have chest X-rays, blood tests and a sentinel lymph node biopsy. A CT scan (also called a CAT scan) is often used to check whether the melanoma has spread. This procedure makes a series of detailed pictures of the inside of your body, and a dye might be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the areas show up better.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinomas (BCC) are cancers that begin in the skin’s outer layer, called the epidermis. BCCs most commonly develop on parts of the body that receive lots of sun exposure, such as the face, ears and neck. People who use tanning beds are also at greater risk for BCC.

Most BCCs are slow-growing, and they rarely spread to other areas of the body. But they can grow large and cause serious damage if not treated promptly.

Early detection and prompt treatment are the best ways to prevent BCCs from spreading. You can help by doing regular self-checks for unusual marks or growths. If you notice a mark that looks different or bleeds easily or doesn’t heal, schedule an appointment with your doctor. A dermatologist can examine the spot and determine if it’s a basal cell carcinoma. A biopsy can confirm the diagnosis.

There are several treatment options for BCCs, depending on the size and depth of the growth. Your doctor may recommend Mohs surgery, a special method of excision that removes the growth layer by layer and carefully checks each removed layer under a microscope until no abnormal cells remain. Reconstructive surgery is sometimes needed to repair the area after the procedure. If the tumor has spread, newer chemotherapy drugs may be used that block a key pathway that encourages basal cell carcinoma to grow and spread. These drugs include Erivedge(r) (vismodegib) and Odomzo(r) (sonidegib).

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) occurs when flat cells in the middle and outer layers of your skin develop changes, or mutations, in their DNA. This allows these cells to grow out of control and continue living when normal cells would die. Most often, SCC forms on areas of your skin that get a lot of sun like your face, hands or arms. But it can also form in scaly patches of skin called actinic keratosis (AK), which is most common on people with darker skin tones. It can also grow in severe burn scars or sores that have been present for many years.

SCC grows slowly and tends to spread rapidly if it is not treated early. It can be life-threatening if it spreads to other parts of the body, but if caught early, it is usually curable.

Your doctor can diagnose SCC by looking at your lesion and reviewing your health history. He or she may need to remove a small piece of skin with a special tool, then send it to a lab to be tested for genetic changes that can indicate cancer.

There are several treatment options for SCC, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs work by killing cancer cells and slowing their growth or spreading to other tissues.


Depending on where your cancer is and how big it is, you may need surgery or other treatments. Your doctor will talk through all your options.

Non-melanoma skin cancers develop from cells in the top layers of your skin, called the epidermis. They grow slowly and usually don’t spread to other parts of the body, but if not treated, they can become larger and cause more serious problems.

Most of these cancers are curable if they’re caught and treated early. They can appear as firm red nodules, scaly growths that bleed or crust over, sores that don’t heal and bumps that ooze or resemble warts. They’re most common on the head, face, ears, neck, hands and other sun-exposed areas. They’re also more likely to occur in people with fair skin, and hereditary conditions like xeroderma pigmentosum and Muir-Torre syndrome increase the risk of developing these types of skin cancer.

Mohs surgery is a special procedure for treating certain types of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). During this operation, your surgeon removes a thin layer of tissue around the tumour, checks it under a microscope, and then shaves off another tiny bit at a time until no more cancer cells are seen. It’s the most precise surgical treatment available for skin cancer and can have success rates of up to 99%.