Why skin checks should be top of your to-do list

Melanoma is the most deadly form of cancer in Australia – and checking your skin regularly has never been more important.

Many regular health tests were put on the backburner as during COVID-19 lockdowns, when face-to-face medical visits became tricky.

But with skin cancer causing around 1300 deaths in Australia each year, it’s vital to get back on track in checking for suspicious moles or spots.

Cancer Council Australia skin cancer committee chair Paige Preston says the sooner a skin cancer is identified, the better.

“So it is important to develop a habit of regularly checking your skin and visiting your doctor as soon as you notice anything new or changing,” Paige says.

The Australasian College of Dermatologists says the five-year survival rate for patients diagnosed with Stage 1 melanoma is 99 per cent, but this drops to 61 per cent for stage 3 and 26 per cent for stage 4.

Regularly check your skin at home

To perform a self-examination, an Australasian College of Dermatologists spokesperson recommends using a hand mirror in front of a wall mirror.

Examine your whole body, including scalp, hands and feet. Look for changes in:

  • New moles and spots.
  • Existing moles that increase in size, change colour or become irregular.
  • Any mole or spot that becomes raised, lumpy, scaly or ulcerated.
  • Red moles that are firm and enlarging.
  • Any mole or spot that itches, bleeds or weeps.
  • Any spot that looks different from the others.

Who to see about skin concerns

If you notice anything unusual on your skin, your GP should be the first port of call.

“If there is anything unusual, your doctor may perform a biopsy, which removes a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope. And in some cases, your GP may refer you to a specialist, such as a dermatologist,” says Paige.

You could also visit a dedicated skin clinic, though Paige recommends first checking their services and fees as they may not necessarily offer a higher level of expertise than your GP.

What happens if something unusual is found in a skin check?

Paige says if your doctor identifies anything suspicious, they will advise you of the next steps, which may include a biopsy or referring you to a dermatologist.

“Skin cancers are almost always removed,” Paige says.

“In more advanced skin cancers, some of the surrounding tissue may also be removed to make sure all of the cancerous cells have been taken out.

“Common skin cancers can be treated with ointments or radiation therapy, and for other cases, treatment can include cryotherapy curettage or cautery to remove skin cancers.”

What causes skin cancer?

Almost all melanomas are the result of previous sun exposure.

It can also be caused by:

  • Excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or solariums.
  • Having fair skin and hair (including red).
  • Having a high number of common or unusual moles.
  • A family history of melanoma.
  • A weakened immune system.
  • A previous diagnosis of skin cancer.

How can I prevent skin cancer?

  • Slip on clothing that covers as much skin as possible,
  • Slop on SPF30 (or higher) broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen,
  • Slap on a broad-brimmed hat that shades the face, ears and neck,
  • Seek shade
  • Slide on sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard for UV protection.

More on sun safety and skin cancer:

Written by Claire Burke.