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Why you should do a skin cancer check today

Australia is the skin cancer capital of the world. Here’s how to keep an eye on your skin and lower your risk.

More people are diagnosed with skin cancer in Australia every year than any other type of cancer. But you’re probably not surprised. After all, the ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ campaign has been around for decades.

As well as protecting yourself in the sun, research shows getting to know your skin is also important for early detection. Here’s what you need to know about protecting your skin this summer.

Skin cancer in Australia

According to Cancer Council, each year more than 11,500 Australians are diagnosed with a melanoma – the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Plus an estimated 434,000 people are treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers, which are normally less serious but may still need treatment.

The great news is that skin cancer rates are declining in most age groups. “For basically every age group under the age of 60, the rates of melanoma are either stabilising or declining,” says Heather Walker, chair of the national skin cancer committee at Cancer Council Australia.

The not-so-great news is that skin cancer rates are on the rise among older people. “Over the age of 60, the rates of skin cancer are still going up dramatically because people in that age group didn’t have good sun protection when they were kids and teenagers, when most of the damage is done,” says Associate Professor Stephen Shumack from the Australasian College of Dermatologists.

Sun exposure and skin cancer

Heather says 95–99% of skin cancers in our sunburnt country are caused by exposure to the UV radiation in sunlight. Extreme exposure to UV radiation results in sunburn, but evidence shows that even regular sun exposure that doesn’t result in burning can still increase the risk of melanoma.

The UV radiation causes DNA damage to skin cells, and if the damage isn’t repaired by the body, a process called ‘faulty cell replication’ can happen. This triggers abnormal cell growth that can eventually lead to skin cancer.

The effects of too much sun are cumulative and irreversible, and people with pale skin are at higher risk of developing skin cancer. But temperature doesn’t contribute to the damage that causes skin cancer – this is one of the common sun safety myths. You can still get burnt on a cool day.

“UV has nothing to do with the temperature,” says Assoc Prof Shumack. “The level of UV radiation is more related to the time of the year and how close we are to the summer solstice.”

When the UV level is three and above, it’s strong enough to cause damage to the skin. Find daily UV levels at the Bureau of Meteorology.

Cancer Council recommends sun protection measures you’re probably familiar with – slip on sun-protective clothing, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on sunnies.

What are the signs of skin cancer?

Unlike other cancers, there isn’t an official screening program for skin cancer. Instead, experts recommend developing a habit of checking your skin for irregularities every three months, and Assoc Prof Shumack suggests getting your skin checked by a GP about twice a year.

Check your entire body - skin cancer can appear anywhere on the skin - including parts not usually exposed to the sun, like the soles of your feet and palms of your hands. If you can’t see your back, ask a partner or friend to help.

Guides like the ‘ABCDE of melanoma detection’ (see below) can help and as a general rule, Heather says it’s important to check for anything new, changing or that looks different to the rest of your skin.

“It’s not always a mole – we tend to talk about ‘spots’ on your skin because it might not look as you’d expect a mole to look,” she says. “For example, you could have a red, scabby spot that might bleed or be crusty.” If you see anything new, changing or unusual, see your GP.

Are you at high risk?

Your GP may recommend regular skin checks – possibly by a dermatologist – if you fall into a high-risk category, says Heather.

You may be higher risk if you:

  • have a family or personal history of melanoma
  • have a history of tanning or using sunbeds or lots of bad sunburns
  • are very fair skinned and have lots of moles.

“Speak to your GP who can recommend how often you should have your skin checked by a professional,” says Heather.

Services like Molemap, which don’t need a GP referral and can be booked online, are another option for people, especially if you have irregular moles or are at a higher risk, says Assoc Prof Shumack.

“Molemap is a way of monitoring those moles over a period of time,” he says. “If there’s been a significant change, the suggestion might be that you see your GP and potentially a dermatologist.”

The Molemap check only takes 15 minutes – find your closest clinic at molemap.net.au.

For more information visit Cancer Council Australia at cancer.org.au


Words by Angela Tufvesson
This article first appeared in the Novmeber 2019 edition of Health Agenda magazine.

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