Skin cancer risk factors in Australia

Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. In fact, approximately 2 out of every 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70 years. Australians are also 4 times more likely to develop skin cancer than any other type of cancer.

Who is most at risk?

The chance of developing skin cancer depends on a number of factors. A person may be more likely to develop skin cancer if they:

  • spent their childhood in Australia;
  • are mature, as the risk of skin cancer increases with age;
  • have fair skin, or skin that burns easily;
  • have fair or reddish hair;
  • have light-coloured eyes (green or blue);
  • have freckles or lots of moles;
  • have been severely sunburned in the past
  • have a personal or family history of skin cancer;
  • do not protect their skin from sun exposure;
  • work or spend a lot of time in the sun; or
  • already have ‘sun spots’ (solar keratoses) — red, scaly spots on sun-exposed skin. These are not actually skin cancers, but are an indication that the skin has been exposed to too much sun and are a warning that skin cancer may occur.

Unprotected exposure to the sun up to the age of about 15 years can more than double your risk of developing skin cancer later in life. Avoiding sun damage to skin during the first 2 decades of life is an important protection against developing skin cancer as an adult.

Nevertheless, it is important for everyone, regardless of age or skin type, to take steps to protect themselves against skin cancer.

Solariums

Solariums, sunlamps and sun beds are not safe ways to tan. Solariums emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation that, according to SunSmart Victoria, can be up to 3 times as strong as the midday sun. Solariums have been shown in research to increase the risk of skin cancer: those who use a solarium before the age of 35 years have a 75 per cent greater risk of developing a melanoma than those who do not use solariums.

Medical treatments

Some medical treatments can increase the risk of skin cancer. These include UV treatment for skin conditions such as psoriasis. In addition, a number of medicines, including some creams and lotions, can make a person more susceptible to skin damage from UV rays. Ask your doctor if any medicines you are prescribed are likely to increase your sensitivity to UV light.

Other causes

Some substances are photosensitisers, and exposure to them, for example through your occupation, can make you more sensitive to UV light, and put you at increased risk of skin cancer. Examples include:

  • coal tar and derivatives such as creosote;
  • dyes such as fluoroscein;
  • chlorinated hydrocarbons such as chlorobenzols; and
  • some plants such as fennel and some citrus species.

A number of rare hereditary conditions can also lead to photosensitivity.

Early detection

The earlier a skin cancer is detected, the better the chance of successful treatment. Basal cell carcinomas (BCCs), the least dangerous and most common of the skin cancers, are successfully treated in almost all cases. Squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) — which are not as dangerous as melanoma but can spread to other parts of the body if not treated — are also successfully treated in almost 100 per cent of cases. Melanoma can be fatal, although more than 90 per cent of people who have a melanoma treated will still be alive after 5 years.

Skin cancers usually do not cause discomfort and are best picked up by regularly looking at the skin rather than just by feel. A regular skin self-examination aims to pick up any changes early.

Be on the lookout for:

  • any new spot or unusual freckle, mole or sunspot;
  • a non-healing or crusty sore;
  • a small lump that is red, pale or pearly;
  • a spot that looks different from other spots around it;
  • a persisting itch in a mole; or
  • a spot that has changed colour, size or shape over a few weeks or months.

Consult your doctor if you have any of these signs. Skin cancers that are detected at an early stage are the most easily treated.

Last Reviewed: 14 April 2010
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References

1. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Protecting yourself in five ways from skin cancer. Key statistics [Website]. Updated Nov 2008. http://www.skincancer.gov.au/internet/skincancer/publishing.nsf/Content/fact-2 (accessed July 2010).
2. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Protecting yourself in five ways from skin cancer. Risk factors [Website]. Updated Nov 2009. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/skincancer/publishing.nsf/Content/fact-riskfactors (accessed July 2010).
3. SunSmart Victoria. Tanning and solariums [Website]. Updated May 2010. http://www.sunsmart.com.au/sun_protection/tanning_and_solariums/ (accessed July 2010).
4. SunSmart Victoria. Solariums and tanning [Information sheet]. Updated Jan 2009. Available from: http://www.sunsmart.com.au/sun_protection/tanning_and_solariums/ (accessed July 2010).
5. The Cancer Council Victoria. Skin cancer and outdoor work: a guide for employers. Melbourne: The Cancer Council Victoria, 2007. Available from: http://www.cancer.org.au/file/cancersmartlifestyle/skincanceroutdoorworkbooklet.pdf (accessed July 2010).
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