What is skin cancer?

By: Andrew MacGill

The three main types of skin cancer are BCCs, SCCs and melanomas. In general, the best way to treat skin cancers is to remove them surgically. Basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) are the most common type of skin cancer, but fortunately they are the least aggressive of the three. A BCC is often just a lump that grows and grows and can bleed if knocked when washing or drying yourself. If there is plenty of skin where the BCC is growing (ie your back) they can usually be removed without much of a problem. If the BCC is growing close to your eye or elsewhere on your face it can be more difficult to remove. Diagnosing a BCC on the face early will help reduce the amount of scarring and/or disfigurement that surgical excisions may cause. BCCs left to grow can cause damage to surrounding skin and structures. They don’t cause metastatic cancer, like other cancers such as melanoma, bowel and breast cancer, but they can cause lots of problems especially if on your face.

The next most common skin cancer is the squamous cell carcinomas (SCC). SCCs are ‘non healing sores’. If you have an open sore that just doesn’t want to heal it may be a skin cancer. SCCs can spread and cause metastatic cancer, but they don’t usually. SCCs are more likely to spread if on the head and neck region in those over 60. SCCs need removing like BCCs and, in general, the sooner the better.

The third type of skin cancer is melanoma and is the most serious of the three. Melanomas usually have no symptoms and can look like a strange freckle/mole or pink growth. Melanomas, in New Zealand, kill as many people a year as cars do. Melanomas can occur anywhere on your skin. Sun exposure will increase your risk of developing a melanoma, but they can also occur in places that never see the sun.

To reduce your risk of all forms of skin cancer, minimise your sun exposure. But like all things in life, moderation is key. Enjoy the outdoors and sunshine, but cover up and protect yourself as best you can. In addition, see your GP maybe once a year to get your skin checked. Also, it is wise to have a good look at yourself once a month with the help of the bathroom mirror. You’ll be surprised how good you are at seeing a new or different “mole”. In my experience, most melanomas are recognisable by patients before they are lethal.

Andrew MacGill, Rodney Surgical Centre


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