During a recent survey of The Latch’s audience, we discovered that 37% have never had a skin check before and 27% haven’t had one in a few years. While scary, these figures aren’t surprising given that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Despite the prevalence of skin cancer amongst Australians, many of these cases are entirely preventable and, when detected and treated early, 90% of cases can usually be cured.
With this in mind, The Latch has created The Check-Up — a content series that will educate you on all things sun safety as well as the seriousness of skin cancer and specifically, melanoma. Check back each week for helpful and informative content on everything you need to know about this important topic.
Sure, you’ve heard of melanoma but how much do you actually know about this type of skin cancer? Did you know that it’s the most serious of all skin cancers but is largely preventable? There’s much you need to know about melanoma, including what causes it and how you can prevent it from occurring.
And, while you might know the basics of skin cancer, it’s time we talk about this potentially life-threatening disease more. The more you know about melanoma, the more you’re likely to talk about it with your loved ones and in turn, encourage them to take steps to protect themselves from skin cancer.
Melanoma is largely caused by overexposure to UV radiation from the sun and can be prevented through the use of protective clothing, like sunglasses, hats and long sleeve tops as well as the everyday use of sunscreen.
There are a number of other risk factors that increase your chances of melanoma, including those with fair skin or a high mole count, or those with a personal or family history of melanoma, but, generally speaking, most melanomas are caused by environmental factors.
“The key environmental risk factor for melanoma, estimated to be responsible for more than 90% of melanomas, is UV radiation from the sun,” Dr Annika Smith, a Fellow of the Australasian College of Dermatologists and consultant dermatologist at several private clinics, including Melanoma Institute Australia, told The Latch.
“So excess sun exposure is responsible for the majority of melanomas, while about 10% of melanomas will have a genetic basis. And in those cases that might be evident by a strong family history of melanoma with multiple family members affected.”
For the most part, melanoma is a pretty preventable disease and as such, 90% of cases can be prevented through sun protection. According to Dr Smith, this puts us in a privileged position where the most deadly skin cancer is actually mostly preventable.
“The best form of sun protection is achieved by employing the full complement of sun-protective strategies, particularly when the UV index is greater than three,” Dr Smith said. “That includes appropriate use of sunscreen, which is broad-spectrum — ideally 50+ — sunscreen that’s appropriately applied in terms of quantity and reapplied.
“A broad-brimmed hat, sun-protective clothing and sunglasses are also important as well as seeking shade and avoidance of the sun during the middle of the day which is the peak UV period, (when UVB or skin burning/cancer-causing rays are at their peak). So with those five simple steps alone, we all have the capacity to prevent the majority of melanomas. And I think in a country like Australia, these five simple steps really just need to be part of our everyday lives.”
If you’re not across the latest additions to the “Slip, Slop, Slap” campaign, it now includes two other steps alongside slipping on protective clothing, slopping on sunscreen and slapping on a hat. You’re now also encouraged to seek shade and slide on some sunglasses.
In 2009, the Dark Side of Tanning campaign was released and it aimed to change attitudes around tanning. The TV advertisement featured a young woman taking her shirt off at the beach, so she was completely exposed to the sun except for a bikini. The opening line of the ad told viewers that “tanning is skin cells in trauma” — something that has become a well-known catchphrase ever since.
And, this simple statement resonated with viewers, with research suggesting reporting behavioural change in the target audiences. According to SunSmart, young people reported that they were less likely to get a suntan and more likely to increase their level of sun protection after watching the advertisement. Despite the fact that this particular campaign is over a decade old now, the message is still true today.
“A tan is the end result of distressed skin, the skin produces melanin (pigment) to try and protect itself from UV radiation,” Dr Smith said. “So the tanning process is causing DNA damage to melanocytes, which is then an instigator for photocarcinogenesis – skin cancer development.
“So, in essence, a tan is a sign of skin damage rather than good health. And in a country with the highest rates of skin cancer and in particular, melanoma, in the world, the desire for a tan despite the severe effects of UV radiation astounds me somewhat.”
While having a tan is considered to be culturally preferable here in Australia, it is far from healthy. As well as the concerns for health, the sun also plays a role in ageing, with UV radiation “the key contributor to photo-ageing or premature ageing of the skin,” said Dr Smith.
As well as fine lines and wrinkles, UV radiation can also cause brown spots and pigment irregularity as well as broken capillaries. If you fork out money on anti-ageing skincare products, consider investing in sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses as preventative methods first.
If you have any concerns about your skin or changes in your moles, head straight to your doctor to get a professional opinion. If you haven’t had your skin professionally checked for a while (or ever), here’s where to do it. And, don’t forget the importance of conducting monthly skin checks on yourself at home.