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Skin Cancer: Here’s What You Need To Know

With summer well on its way, we are all looking forward to having some fun in the sun. Whether it’s planning a holiday at the beach, spending time next to the pool or just being outdoors, we need to protect ourselves from the harmful rays of the sun. Protection is the first step in the prevention of skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in South Africa with about 20 000 reported cases each year, resulting in about 700 deaths. South Africa also has the second highest incidence of skin cancer, after Australia.

Below is some important information regarding skin cancer, such as the different types, symptoms, risk factors and preventative measures.

Different types of skin cancer:


This is usually the first type that comes to mind when we think about skin cancer. It usually appears on the skin as flat, unevenly shaped, discoloured (brown, black, red, purple or gray) marks on the skin. It can grow quickly and can also spread to other parts of the body (metastatic melanoma), If untreated, melanoma can grow and spread within 6 weeks. It can also appear on skin that is not usually exposed to the sun.

Nodular melanoma:

As opposed to melanoma described above, the spots are raised and not flat. The marks are usually brown or black in the centre and red or pink around the edges. This form of melanoma is very dangerous and should such a mark occur on your skin, you need to have it treated as soon as possible.

Basal cell carcinoma:

This is the most common, and least dangerous form of skin cancer that usually appears on the head, neck or upper torso. Unlike melanoma, it grows slowly and may appear as a lump that can ulcerate (looks like a sore that won’t heal) or a dry scaly area. The marks can be red, pale or pearly in colour.

Squamous cell carcinoma:

Although this type is not as dangerous as melanoma, it can spread to other parts of the body if untreated and it most commonly appears on skin exposed to the sun. It can thicken or scale over and may bleed easily and ulcerate.

Risk factors:

There are several factors that may increase the risk of developing skin cancer. These include the following:

  • Age:
    The risk of developing skin cancer increases with age. This is also most likely due to increased exposure to UV radiation. Younger people may also develop skin cancer, especially if they get regular sunburns during childhood.
  • Gender:
    Men are more likely to develop skin cancer than women, especially basal carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Immune suppression:
    The risk of skin cancer increases when the immune system is down, for example, when infected with a virus or bacteria or when receiving immune suppression therapy as in the case of organ transplant patients.
    Skin tone: People with a lighter skin tone have a higher risk of developing skin cancer. This risk also increases in people with blonde or red hair, green or blue eyes and skin that burns easily.
  • Presence of moles:
    Although moles themselves are not dangerous, people with a large number of moles have a higher risk of developing melanoma.
  • Family history:
    A family history of inherited skin cancer or other skin diseases increases the risk of developing the disease as well.
  • Smoking:
    Smoking increases the risk of squamous cell carcinomas, especially around the mouth.
    UV and chemical exposure: UV radiation exposure, as well as exposure to certain chemicals may increase the risk of developing skin cancer. Thus people that work outdoors, or spend a lot of time outdoors for leisure, need to take the necessary precautions. With chemical exposure, the risk of certain non-melanoma cancers increases.


Preventative measures:

It is important to lower the risk of getting skin cancer by looking after our skin as best we can. As they always say, prevention is better than cure. Here are a few ways we can help prevent skin cancer:

  • Stay out of the sun when possible. Always seek the shade, especially between the hours of 10:00 and 16:00 when the UV exposure is at its harshest.
  • Avoid tanning beds, especially UV tanning beds.
  • Cover up with clothing, hats and UV blocking sunglasses.
  • Always use a wide spectrum (UVA/UVB) sun block with SPF 15 or higher and ensure you reapply regularly, especially as swimming and perspiration causes sunscreen to wear off.
  • Check yourself frequently for irregularities and if you have a lot of skin blemishes, it may be best if you visit a dermatologist once a year to keep track of them if they become irregular.