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How early detection of skin cancer could save your life

In partnership with Dr Hamish Black

Detecting skin cancer early can save your life

Middle-aged woman with dark, curly hair looking into a mirror at her skin
Middle-aged woman with dark, curly hair looking into a mirror at her skin

With two in three adults diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70, Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world – a worrying fact indeed. Around 2,000 people die from skin cancer every year in Australia, but, as with many other cancers, early detection can drastically reduce those odds, which is why self-skin checks and regular check-ins with your healthcare professional are so important.

Dr Hamish Black, nib group medical advisor, explains,

“The best thing you can do to reduce your chance of skin cancer is to reduce your risk by managing chronic illnesses, stopping smoking and following the SunSmart mantra. If you’ve developed a lesion that you’re concerned about, see your GP or skin specialist. Become familiar with your skin, and if you find a skin lesion has changed, then this is a reason for clinical review. The main thing that doctors want to prevent is melanoma, as this can potentially spread through the body before the skin lesion is found, so early detection is important. The main concerns are summed up as changes in A (asymmetry) B (border) C (colour) D (diameter) and E (evolving).”

Melanoma can spread through the body before the skin lesion is found, so early detection is important

Understanding your risk of skin cancer, as well as getting familiar with your own skin helps with the early detection of skin cancer.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells, often as the result of too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. The three main types of skin cancer are melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma and the sooner any type of skin cancer is detected, the better your chances of avoiding surgery and even death.

The difference between men and women

Men are at higher risk than women of developing skin cancer. The risk of mortality is also higher in males, with men making up 69% of skin cancer deaths in Australia. Skin cancer hits men harder due to a number of reasons:

  • Men's skin is more likely to be damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, but men are less likely to use sun protection regularly and; 

  • Men are less likely than women to be informed about the risk factors and prevention of skin cancer and are less likely to conduct skin self-exams

Sun protection and early detection is key to reducing men's risk.

Ask loved ones for skin-check help

While melanoma occurs most frequently on the lower leg in females, for men, it’s the upper back – an area that can be hard to see during a self-skin check. To make sure you don’t miss any crucial spots, ask a partner, friend or family member to check these hard-to-see areas, or use a handheld mirror.

“The College of GPs recommends three-monthly self-checks and six-monthly clinical reviews for high-risk patients, such as those with previous melanoma. For everyone else, it makes sense to keep an eye on your skin and if there's anything you're concerned about, see your GP or skin specialist,” says Hamish.

Young man with brown hair and beard looking at a mole on his face in the bathroom mirror while wearing a dressing gown

Skin cancer depth

While deeper and thicker melanomas (i.e. those that are diagnosed in their later stages) are more likely to metastasise and be more difficult to treat, thinner melanomas caught early on are far more responsive to treatment. To put that into perspective, consider this: the five-year survival rate in Australia for melanomas that are thicker than 4mm is just 55%, but for melanomas that are 1mm or less, the survival rate jumps to 100%.

The short of a self-skin check

“The main thing with self-skin checks is to look at your pigmented lesions regularly. Remember, we are predominantly trying to prevent melanoma. If one of your moles has changed or is new, get it checked out. Get your partner to check areas you can’t see, like your back and buttocks. If you have large moles, you may want to take photos of them on an annual basis. You’re looking for the ‘ABCDE’ of changes – asymmetry, border, colour, diameter or evolving,” says Hamish.

Most skin cancers are found when people check their own skin or are noticed by a loved one, making getting to know your own skin really important in skin cancer prevention. When you know what’s normal for you, you’re better able to pick up any changes that might indicate skin cancer.

So, how do you get more familiar with your skin? By performing regular self-assessments. And it’s easier than you might think! To do a self-skin exam, first, make sure you are in a room with good light and a full-length mirror. Undress completely and use the mirror to look at your whole body. That means your face and scalp, neck and shoulders, and the front and back of your arms (including your armpits), hands and legs. Don’t forget the parts of your body that don’t get sun exposure, such as between your fingers and toes, and the soles of your feet.

While skin cancers don’t all look the same, there are a few common things to look out for during a skin self-exam:

  • A spot that looks and feels different from other spots on your skin

  • A spot that has changed in size, shape, colour or texture

  • A sore that doesn’t heal within a few weeks, or that is itchy or bleeds

When it comes to spotting potential melanoma, use the ABCDE method:

  • Asymmetry. Look for spots that are not symmetrical

  • Border. Spots with an irregular edge or border may be of concern

  • Colour. Keep an eye out for spots that are blotchy and contain several colours (i.e. black, blue, red, white and/or grey)

  • Diameter. If a spot is growing in diameter (i.e. getting bigger), it may be cause for concern

  • Evolving. Look out for any spots that are changing and evolving

Related: How to check yourself for skin cancer

Who can and should diagnose skin cancer?

While it’s important to know your skin and check it regularly, only a qualified doctor can provide a diagnosis. If you find a spot of concern, your first port of call should be your GP, who will assess your skin and advise what (if any) treatment is needed. GPs are trained to identify skin cancers and perform minor procedures.

If needed, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist – skin specialists who have advanced training in skin cancer identification and treatment.

And, as for how often you need a skin check?

“The college of GPs doesn't recommend regular professional reviews apart from high-risk individuals who should be seen six-monthly. Self-examination and education is the key for the rest of the population,” Hamish advises.

Related: Skin check by a skin specialist

The takeaway – early detection saves lives

The message is simple: detected early, skin cancers are usually treatable, including melanoma. By knowing your risk of skin cancer and getting to know your skin by performing regular self-skin assessments, you might just save your own life.

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

In partnership with

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.