Summer Skin

Summer in Australia is finally here, but the flipside of living in a sunburnt country is that we need to be aware of the dangers of sun damage from ultra violet (UV) light.

Skin cancer – which is basically sun-damaged skin – is the most common type of cancer in Australia. Non-melanoma skin cancers (basal cell and squamous cell) make up 98 per cent of all skin cancers diagnosed, but melanoma is the most deadly. More than ten thousand Australians are diagnosed with melanoma each year, with over a thousand cases in Western Australia alone. And the single biggest cause for skin cancer is UV damage.

One theory as to why skin cancer rates in Australia are so high is because we have less of an ozone layer protecting us from the UV light. But lack of education around sun protection – the ‘slip, slop, slap’ message has recently been expanded to include two more steps (‘seek! slide’!) – is another cause.

Solarium beds (or ‘tanning beds’), which use UV radiation, are another lifestyle risk which can greatly increase your risk of skin cancer, with a total ban on the beds in place in Victoria and New South Wales from January 1, 2015. They are still legal in Perth.

Research shows that people who first use tanning machines before the age of 35 have an 87 per cent higher risk of developing melanoma.

Forty-three year-old Perth woman Erin Hansen has always enjoyed the healthy look of a nice tan, and even installed a solarium in the back of her home, “to keep my colour up throughout the winter months.” But the solarium got the boot five years ago when Erin first discovered a “funny looking spot” on her back during a routine checkup at the Doctor. She had it removed and sent off for testing, and thankfully, although it ended up being a non-melanoma skin cancer, she has since found around thirty five more, predominantly on her upper chest and back, and one on her leg. Erin has had all of them removed and sent off for testing; because she knows the single best way to improve your chances of surviving melanoma is early detection.

West Australian Clinton Heal was diagnosed at age 22 with metastatic melanoma. After having over 34 secondary tumours removed, he has successfully recovered from this shocking prognosis. Clinton founded Melanoma WA to help offer support and information to those with melanoma in WA and around Australia.

According to Melanoma WA, “if Melanoma is not treated quickly, it may spread via the lymphatic system to other areas of the body, and this is referred to as Metastatic Melanoma.” The later your melanoma is discovered, the lower your chance of survival.

Erin wishes she had been educated when she was younger about the risks of going without sun protection and particularly, using solariums. Every month, Erin finds a new skin cancer and has to wait after having it removed, to discover whether or not it’s melanoma.

“What surprised me the most was how much damage it (sunbaking) has caused to my skin. I just wish we’d known the risks of sunbaking when we were younger.”

Aside from staying out of the sunshine when the UV index is 3 or above (check UV and Sun Protection Times), The Cancer Council Australia recommends the new rules of ‘slip, slop, slap, seek, slide’:

  • Slip on protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible
  • Slop on SPF 30 sunscreen or higher, at least 20 minutes before going outside in the sun
  • Slap on a hat to protect the face, nose, head and ears, which are the most common sites for skin cancer
  • Seek shade (such as an umbrella if at the beach, or a large tree)
  • Slide on some sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV damage.

Aside from preventative measures, ensure you go for regular skin checks with your GP or skin specialist (have a professional skin check once a year with your GP or skin specialist BUT get into the habit of checking  your own skin once a month to get to know your spots and dots!), because early detection is vital. If you notice any of the following:

  • a spot that is different from other spots on the skin
  • a spot, mole or freckle that has changed in size, shape or colour
  • a sore that doesn’t heal
  • a spot that bleeds.

Then don’t delay, seek out the prognosis from your GP.

Article by Louisa Deasey. Published 17/11/15.