This coming week, November 20-26, 2016 is National Skin Cancer Action week, an initiative of both the Cancer Council and Australian College of Dermatologists. It aims to raise awareness and remind Australians of the importance of sun protection and the early detection of skin cancer.

With summer approaching there really is no better time to review how best to protect our skin from the dangers of the sun. It is also vital that we know how to monitor our skin for new spots and changes to existing moles, as early detection can be just as important.

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. In fact 2 out of 3 Australians will be diagnosed with some type of skin cancer by the age of 70. Skin Cancers are often divided into Non-Melanoma skin cancer (i.e. basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas) and Melanomas.

Melanomas are less common but are considered the most serious type of skin cancer, as they are much more likely to spread to other parts of the body. Australia has the highest incidence of Melanoma in the world and it is the cause of approximately 75% of the 2000 deaths that occur each year in Australia from skin cancer.

We are all aware that Skin Cancers are mainly caused by the overexposure to UV light. When UV levels reach 3 and above, they are considered high enough to cause skin damage. In today’s age of smart phones, it is very easy to find out the current UV index from the weather app and we should use this information to ensure we have adequate sun protection. You will be surprised to see how the UV index often has little to do with the temperature or even cloud coverage.

Over time slogans have been used to convey the sun safety message. Unfortunately it is still not getting through especially in the younger generation. Melanoma is the most commonly diagnosed of all cancers in Australia in the 15-29 age group.  And as 50% of all sunburns occur during everyday activity it is clear we are still forgetting the core sun protection message. The current Cancer Council slogan/message is as follows:

SLIP on sun-protective clothing

SLOP on a broad spectrum sunscreen SPF30 and above

SLAP on a broad brimmed hat

SEEK shade whenever possible

SLIDE on sunglasses

By following this message every day we will go a long way to reducing our risk of developing any type of skin cancer.

As important as it is to practice good sun protection, it is just as vital that we self-check our skin and have it checked by a professional at regular intervals. We should all become familiar with our skin and it’s important to remember that even skin not exposed to the sun can be at risk of developing skin cancer.

When checking our skin for the signs of potential skin cancer we should look for the following:

  • Appearance of new moles
  • Moles that have changed shape, size and/or colour
  • An outline of a mole that becomes notched
  • A spot or mole that has become raised
  • Moles that have become rough, scaly or ulcerated
  • Moles that bleed, itch or weep
  • Spots or moles that look different from the others

The Cancer Council has a more specific guide that is specific for Melanomas which can be seen below.

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Smart phones are again a useful tool in the self-monitoring of our skin. There are many apps available that allow one to take photos at regular time intervals. When checking our skin it is best do it in front of a full length mirror to ensure we check hard to see areas. Having a friend or family member check can also help in thoroughly examining your skin.

In addition to self-examination it is important that we have our skin checked annually by a professional. In most instances it is best to see your GP first and then if necessary they can refer you to a dermatologist. Skin Clinics are also a first option, but may not offer any higher level of expertise than your GP. It is always best to check a skin practitioner’s qualifications, and determine if they have any specific training or affiliation with a dermatological organisation (i.e. Australian College of Dermatologists)

As we enter another long hot summer in Australia, preventing skin cancer is obviously the best approach. This is done through the practice of good sun protection everyday when UV levels reach 3 and above. Living in Australia however leaves us at a higher risk of developing skin cancer in our lifetime. Therefore regular self skin evaluation and checkups with a skin practitioner are just as important as sun protection in reducing our overall skin cancer risk.