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Skin cancer season

The summer months mean that skin cancer is back in everyone’s mind. We look at the latest advice about how to stay safe in the sun.


Summertime is here and with it balmy temperatures, lazy afternoons and a skyrocketing UV index. We all know to slip, slop, slap these days, but those of us edging into our senior years can remember a time when attitudes to sun protection were rather more laissez-faire than they are today. Back in the 60s and 70s, the legend of the bronzed Aussie was in full force. Nothing spoke of health and wellbeing better than a glowing, golden tan, usually developed with the aid of SPF 4 sunscreen and third-degree sunburn.

They were simpler times, but unfortunately we now know that the more frequently one has been exposed to damaging amounts of UV radiation, the more likely one is to develop melanoma or other types of skin cancer later in life. This is why the vast majority of newly diagnosed skin cancers occur in those over 55. Indeed, two-thirds of all Australians will be diagnosed with a skin cancer by the time they’re 70. Not that the risk is shared equally: rates in sun-drenched Queensland are twice the national average and three times the rate seen in permanently overcast Victoria and Tasmania.


What to look for

Skin cancers are split into two major groups: melanoma and carcinoma. As a general rule, carcinomas are far more common and far less serious than melanoma. More than 400,000 Australians are treated for carcinoma each year, yet in the vast majority of those cases the only required treatment will be the surgical removal of the offending spot, usually under local anaesthetic. Nonetheless, it’s important to take care of your carcinoma as quickly as possible, as left untreated they can develop into more complex and hazardous cancers.

Melanoma, on the other hand, is a more serious proposition. Affecting around 13,000 Australians each year, melanomas disproportionately affect seniors; by the age of 85, one in 13 men and one in 22 women will have been diagnosed with melanoma. Unlike carcinoma, melanoma grows and metastasises rapidly, and can require surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, depending on the spread and severity of the disease. Melanomas typically present as a large, assymetrical and steadily growing mole or spot, so it’s important to become familiar with your skin's blemishes and to talk to a doctor immediately if you notice anything changing. For this reason, you should also ask your doctor to conduct regular mole checks. They can track the evolution of suspicious spots over time and intervene the moment that something warrants it.


What to do

If they do discover a malignant melanoma, it’s important not to panic. The vast majority of melanomas will be surface growths, able to be removed with a simple and relatively painless procedure. But things grow more complicated if the cancer has already metastasised. Famously resistant to chemotherapy, metastatic melanoma has, up until very recently, been essentially untreatable. However, thanks to the development of a new class of drugs known as immunotherapy, outcomes have become far better than they were even a few years ago. Nonetheless, early detection remains the best treatment, so make sure you keep up-to-date with your mole checks!

If you have already been diagnosed with a skin cancer, it becomes even more important to continually monitor yourself for new spots, lesions and moles, as well as to have annual spot checks with your doctor. Half of all people treated for skin cancer will need to have another lesion removed within four years. But whether you’re a dozen carcinomas deep, or completely in the clear, the rules for summer are exactly the same – wear a hat, cover exposed skin, find shade and slather on the SPF 50. The healthy golden tan can wait.