Skin cancer affects the body’s largest organ, the skin. It occurs when abnormal skin cells develop and multiply, most often in areas frequently exposed to the sun.

There are different cells that can be affected, giving rise to different types of skin cancer, predominantly basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and the rare and dangerous form, melanoma, which is most likely to invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

UV radiation from the sun is the most common of the potential skin cancer causes, but when it occurs in areas not exposed to the sun, other factors that play a role in the development of skin cancer include smoking, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, artificial UV radiation (for example, from tanning beds), the use of some immunosuppressive medications, some genetic syndromes and age.

What are its symptoms?

Skin cancer symptoms vary depending on the type, but signs of skin cancer frequently involve changes to the skin, such as:

  • Wounds that won’t heal
  • Changes to existing moles, including changes in size or colour, a diameter larger than 6mm, jagged edges and pain, itching, redness, or bleeding, which may be a sign of melanoma
  • A raised, pearly bump can indicate basal cell carcinoma, the least dangerous form of skin cancer
  • Red scaling or thickening of sun exposed skin or hard nodules can be signs of squamous cell carcinoma
  • New moles that appear in adulthood

How is it diagnosed?

A skin cancer diagnosis usually involves two parts. The first is an examination by a doctor of the affected area. Thereafter a biopsy of the suspicious-looking skin can confirm the diagnosis. This entails taking a sample of the skin to be tested for cancer markers in a laboratory and, if the diagnosis is confirmed, to pinpoint which type of skin cancer is involved.

Once this is determined, further tests may be carried out to check whether the cancer has spread or not, with Stage I indicating that it is contained and Stage IV meaning an advanced cancer that has spread. 

What are your treatment options?

Skin cancer treatment is individualised based on the type of cancer, the location and size of the area affected, and the overall health of the patient.

Various surgical procedures or techniques can be used to excise the affected tissue, including cryosurgery (freezing) or Mohs surgery, a specialised technique used to preserve as much healthy skin as possible.

When the cancer can’t be removed completely surgically, chemotherapy (in the form of creams or lotions if only the upper layer of the skin is affected, or systemic, if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body) or radiation therapy are treatment options.

Can it be prevented?

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), one of the most important factors in skin cancer prevention is a sun protection factor (SPF). When you’re unable to avoid the midday sun – between 10am and 4pm – it’s essential to wear sunscreen, no matter what the season.

Sun-protective clothing can also help prevent sunburn, as can avoiding tanning beds and any medications that increase sun-sensitivity.

CANSA also recommends avoiding using tobacco products, as this is a known risk factor for the development of a host of different cancers.

Examine your skin regularly for changes and report anything unusual to your healthcare provider.

For more info
The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA)

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015
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