Skin cancer risk factors in Australia

Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. Approximately 2 out of every 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70 years.

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:

  • 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 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 outdoors or spend a lot of time outdoors, unprotected;
  • have used solariums, sun lamps or have been sunburned; or
  • already have ‘sun spots’ (actinic keratoses / solar keratoses) — flat scaly spots (red or skin-coloured). These are a warning that skin damage has occurred. Some may go on to develop into skin cancers.

Your sun exposure in the first 10 years of your life affects your background risk for getting skin cancer. Every additional decade of high sun exposure after that adds to your cumulative risk. Avoiding sun damage to skin throughout life is an important protection against developing skin cancer.  

Solariums

Solariums, sunlamps and sun beds are not safe. Solariums emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which causes melanoma and other skin cancers, eye damage and premature ageing of the skin. Commercial solariums are illegal in Australia.

Medical treatments

Some medical treatments which use UV radiation may increase the risk of skin cancer.  In addition, a number of medicines, including some creams and lotions, and some antibiotics, 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 risk factors

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 an increased risk of skin cancer including xeroderma pigmentosa, a condition in which a person has reduced ability to repair DNA damage, such as that caused by UV radiation.

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.

References

1. Cancer Australia. What are the risk factors for melanoma? Updated Dec 2017. https://melanoma.canceraustralia.gov.au/risk-factors
2. Sun Smart. Risk factors. CC Victoria. http://www.sunsmart.com.au/skin-cancer/risk-factors#suntan
3. 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).
4. SunSmart Victoria. Tanning and solariums [Website]. Updated May 2010. http://www.sunsmart.com.au/sun_protection/tanning_and_solariums/ (accessed July 2010).
5. 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).
6. 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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