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The skin damage I see doesn't just happen at the beach

November 18, 2015

The skin damage I see doesn't just happen at the beach

As a dermatologist, I see many people who are 'UV aware' and apply sun protection at the beach and pool. Yet for some, to their shock and disbelief, I have to give them the news that they have skin cancer.

Aussies who were exposed to the 'Slip Slop Slap, Seek, Slide' campaign when they were younger often feel they've been diligent when they're in the sun, carefully applying sunscreen at the beach and wearing a hat. It's quite common for them to feel that the diagnosis of skin cancer is unfair and ask how this could happen to them.

It's not easy to tell someone that they have a disease that they didn't even realise they were at risk of getting. Many of my patients aren't beachgoers, they haven't been fans of sunbaking and there's no family history of melanomas. Too often, they just simply didn't realise they were putting themselves at risk through years of excessive exposure to background ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

That's why the Australasian College of Dermatology has joined with Cancer Council to remind Australians that 'UV. It all adds up' -  the main message is that it's not just when we are at the beach that we need to think about being SunSmart.

Our latest research shows that one in two Aussie sunburns occurs during everyday activity.

It's when we're busy in our daily lives - going to the shops, gardening in the backyard, kicking the 'footy', or with friends at a BBQ - that leave us exposed to UV damage. This incidental sun exposure and accumulation of UV adds up over time.

Sadly, around 2000 Australians die from skin cancer each year and it is estimated that two out of every three will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.

To protect your skin, there are five basic tips to keep in mind:

  1. Check the UV Index and protect yourself if it is 3 or above. Cancer Council has a great mobile app that gives you UV levels, weather forecast, vitamin D information and more.
  2. Seek shade when outside during peak UV times
  3. Apply sunscreen, with an SPF30 or higher, every two hours.
  4. Wear loose clothing made of fabrics that block out UV radiation, such as close-woven cotton and linen. Some stores now sell UV protected clothing.
  5. Wear sunglasses (that meet Australian standards) and a wide-brimmed hat to protect your scalp and face

In addition to sun protection, getting to know your own skin is important as it can lead to an early diagnosis. If caught quickly, melanoma can be treated before it spreads and has a five year survival rate of 98%.

Getting to know your skin is key to being able to spot a change in an existing mole or blemish, or the development of a new one. It helps to get a friend or family member to check your skin in those hard to see places - like your back and the top of your head.

Melanoma presents itself as a new or changing mole, and while not as common as some other forms of skin cancer, it is the most dangerous as it can spread to other parts of the body if not treated early.

Around 10,000 Australians and New Zealanders are diagnosed with melanoma each year, the highest rate in the world.

When checking a mole or blemish, the 'ABCD' rule of melanoma is useful. Look for:

  • Asymmetrical - a mark that is not even
  • Border - an irregular and uneven border
  • Colour - multiple colours including dark brown or black but also pink or red can be suspicious
  • Diameter - a spot or mole that is getting bigger

If you do notice any of the above - head to your GP or dermatologist straight away.

It's also important to have persistent sores that do not heal checked, as they could be a basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, both of which can also be potentially fatal. 

My main message to anyone reading this is to be aware of UV exposure, check your skin regularly and, if you are in any doubts, visit your GP. Because there is nothing worse than being caught out unawares.

Skin cancer is a serious national health concern, however, by following a few simple tips, Australians can reduce their risk of skin cancer and lessen its impact with early detection.