Saving your own skin

More common than you think but easily prevented, skin cancer should be a top focus for Australians


It’s no secret that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world but new figures from the Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc suggest sunburnt residents of this land are at even greater risk than previously realised.

Two our of three people living in Australia will develop skin cancer during their lifetime. In recent years, skin cancer has become Australia's most common insurance claim.

That's the disturbing news.

The good news is that there is a range of straightforward measures that can be taken to prevent skin cancer. Also, if diagnosed early, skin cancers can usually be treated easily, quickly and successfully.

Two out of three people who live in Australia will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.


What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the skin. It occurs when those cells are damaged by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun (95-99 per cent of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure). While people usually refer to ‘skin cancer’, medically speaking there’s no such thing. Rather there are three distinct skin-based cancers:

  1. melanoma
  2. basal cell carcinoma
  3. squamous cell carcinoma.

Melanoma can be found anywhere on the body, even on areas of the body not usually exposed to sunlight. It often takes the form a new or changing mole, which may be flat or raised. There are different types of melanoma, with the worst being the raised, lump-like nodular melanoma. Over 10,000 people in Australia currently have melanoma.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer, but it is also the least dangerous. It typically makes itself visible in the form of a pearly surfaced, pink, raised lump that appears on a sun-exposed area, such as the head and neck.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) most commonly occurs in older people. It tends to show up as scaly, crusted lumps that are pale pink to red in colour and usually found on sun-exposed areas of the body.


Who's most at risk?

Unsurprisingly, those with fair skin, fair or red hair, blue or green eyes, multiple moles on their body, a weakened immune system, a previous history of skin cancer or a family history of melanoma are at disproportionately high risk of developing a melanoma, BCC or SCC.

That noted, with the proper precautions the fair-complexioned can reduce their risk. While those with darker skin are less susceptible to having it damaged by UV radiation, thanks to the protection offered by greater amounts of melanin, they are still at risk of developing skin cancer. People who have had intense exposure to UV radiation, especially if it has resulted in sunburn on three or more occasions, are also at increased risk of developing a skin cancer.


Prevention is key

There are five key ways you can reduce your risk of getting skin cancer.

  1. Seek shade by using trees, umbrellas, awnings and buildings. Also, avoid going out during the hottest part of the day and minimise the time you spend outdoors on days with high UV ratings.
  2. Slip on sun-protective clothing to cover as much of the skin as possible, including the back of the neck.
  3. Slop on sunscreen with the highest factor SPF rating available, ensuring it offers broad-spectrum coverage and is water resistant.
  4. Slap on the kind of hat that provides protection for the face, neck and ears.
  5. Slide on a pair of polarised sunglasses to shield the eyes.


Playing doctor

Check your skin for any suspicious changes at the start of each season.  Using a mirror, give yourself a thorough self-examination and pay close attention to sun-exposed parts of the body. Any variations in skin tone or new lumps or bumps are red flags. If any existing moles have changed their size, shape or colour, get them checked out as soon as possible.


Ramp up your cancer resistance

While being sun-smart is a critical part of the battle, it’s possible to reduce your chances of developing most forms of cancer by leading a healthy lifestyle. That involves avoiding smoking and excessive drinking, eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and having regular check-ups. There’s increasing evidence that physical and mental health are interlinked. So you can help prevent physical illnesses by minimising stress and seeking treatment for mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. If you are diagnosed with skin cancer, don’t hesitate to seek psychological assistance from friends, family, health professionals or a support group.


Don't hesitate to get an expert opinion

As tempting as it may be to ignore a mole, freckle or spot that’s changed appearance or started bleeding, or a patch of skin that has become discoloured or itchy, these are signs you need to see a doctor. Your doctor can either provide reassurance that you don’t have a skin cancer or, if you do, do something about it while you’ve still got the best odds of successful treatment.

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