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12 January 2022

How to Stay Sun Smart this Summer with Cancer Council NSW

As the days become longer and both the UV and temperature rises, it is important to remember to take care of ourselves and protect our skin from the sun. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Australia with 2 in 3 Australians diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70. We speak with Rachel McManus, Skin Cancer Prevention Programs Coordinator from Cancer Council NSW on understanding skin cancer and the main cause, how best to protect yourself from UV radiation, and what to do if you’re concerned.

With Australia having one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, it is important to understand what skin cancer is. Could you please explain what skin cancer is and the different types?

Rachel McManus: Skin cancer is a disease of the skin cells. It develops when cells which make up the skin are damaged and grow abnormally. There are three types of skin cancer, each named after the cell in which it occurs:

1. Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), which is the most common form of skin cancer but least dangerous. They occur in the basal cells of the skin and usually appear on sun exposed areas. If left untreated, they will continue to spread into surrounding tissue breaking down to form ulcers. They can leave bad scars if not treated early.

2. Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC), which is also very common and occurs in the squamous cells. They grow more rapidly than basal cell carcinomas and may (very occasionally) spread to other parts of the body including lymph nodes if left untreated. BCC and SCC are also called non-melanoma skin cancers or keratinocyte cancers.

3. Melanoma, which is the least common form of skin cancer but the most dangerous. They occur in the melanocyte cells, which make the melanin that gives your skin colour, and can appear anywhere on the body, not just sun exposed parts. Melanoma tends to grow quickly, and aggressively. It can spread to internal organs and become life threatening in just a few months.

What are the main causes of skin cancer?

RM: The main cause of all skin cancers is overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV is a form of energy from the sun but unlike temperature, you can’t see UV or feel it so it can be damaging your skin without you knowing. When you’re unprotected from the sun, the UV can damage your DNA. While your body can repair some of the DNA damage in the skin cells, it can’t repair all of it. It is this unrepaired damage that builds up over time and can lead to skin cancer.

Do you have any advice on how residents can best protect themselves from the sun this summer?

RM: During summer the UV is classified as extreme (UV of 11 or higher) for most of the country, which means we need to take extra care every time we are outdoors. The best way to protect yourself from the sun is to use all five forms of sun protection: Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide. It’s as easy as slipping on a shirt, slopping on SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum sunscreen, slapping on a broad-brimmed hat, seeking shade, and sliding on sunglasses. It’s important to use a combination of measures and not rely on just one.

The key to good sun protection is finding what works for you and making it part of your daily routine! For example, applying your sunscreen of choice in the morning and keeping a bottle near the door, along with a hat you like to put on before heading outside. Make sure you apply enough sunscreen too and reapply every 2 hours. An average-sized adult needs about a teaspoon for the head and neck, each limb and for the front and back of the body. That is at least 35ml or 7 teaspoons for one full body application. Learn more about sunscreen protection and how to best apply here.

Pictured: Cancer Council NSW advice on how to protect yourself from skin cancer

Is there anything residents can do at home to check themselves for skin cancer?

RM: While protecting your skin is the best way to protect yourself from skin cancer, it’s important to get to know your skin by regularly checking for any new or changed spots.
The best way to do this is to find a room with good light and a full-length mirror, undress and check all of your skin, including areas not exposed to the sun such as your underarms, groin, and soles of your feet. To check areas that are difficult to see, use a handheld mirror or ask someone to help you. Skin cancers don’t all look the same but some signs to look out for include a new spot or an existing spot that has changed in size, shape, colour, or texture. You can also use the ABCDE guidelines to help check for melanoma and learn more about how best to check your skin here.

Pictured: Don’t forget to Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide to help prevent skin cancer

How often should we be checking ourselves?

RM: There is no set guideline on how often you should check your skin, but the sooner skin cancer is found, the easier it is to treat. Get to know your skin and what’s normal for you, so it’s easier to notice any changes. If you had a lot of sun exposure growing up, have previously had a skin cancer removed or have fair or freckled skin, you should seek advice from your doctor on how often you should check your skin.

What should a resident do if they are concerned?

RM: If you are concerned about a new spot or one that has changed, get it checked by your doctor as soon as possible. Don’t put it off. Melanoma can develop and spread quickly so the sooner it’s found, the more effective treatment will be.

Hometown Australia would like to thank Rachel McManus and Cancer Council NSW for their time and resources. You can visit Cancer Council NSW website for further information

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