Over-55s are driving a surge in skin cancer rates

It may be a long time since you last sunned yourself on the beach or in your backyard without slipping, slopping and slapping, but do not be fooled – you could still be at risk of skin cancer.

The latest research indicates that the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers in Australia is continuing to rise steadily despite long-running campaigns warning of the dangers. And the group driving the increase is the over-55s.

According to a study led by Associate Professor Catherine Olsen from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, there has been an increase in skin cancers of between 2 and 6 per cent per annum over the past three decades.

The study, which was published last month, found that “more than two-thirds of Australians will be treated for the most common skin cancers in their lifetime”, reinforcing our country’s reputation as the world’s ‘skin cancer capital’.

Read: Drinking can increase your skin cancer risk by 20 per cent

Published in Public Health Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute, the study provides current evidence on the incidence of basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) and squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs), which are collectively known as keratinocyte cancers.

Also known as non-melanoma skin cancers, keratinocyte cancers are the most common cancers in Australia.

BCCs, which make up at least two-thirds of all skin cancers, grow slowly in the lower levels of the skin’s epidermis. By contrast, SCCs grow rapidly in the upper layer of the epidermis, and, if left untreated, can damage nerves and nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body with potentially lethal consequences. More than 500 Australians die from SCCs every year.

Read: Unexpected places you can get skin cancer

Another of the paper’s authors, Professor David Whiteman, said that despite the strong sun-safe messaging Australians are now exposed to, the rise in cases was being driven by sun damage catching up with people in older age groups who had experienced UV exposure in their youth.

With Australians living longer than ever, “they’re now showing the effects of their sun exposure from years and decades before,” Prof. Whiteman said. He said it was never too late to use sun protection and “even people in their 40s and beyond who start using sun protection every single day can reduce their risk of skin cancer and reduce the incidence of new skin cancers forming if they’ve already had it”.

In reporting the latest figures, the study’s authors noted that unlike melanomas, data on keratinocyte cancers is not recorded in state and territory cancer registries, except in Tasmania. As a result, the published figures may underestimate the true numbers.

Read: The cost of cancer – not all treatments are covered by the PBS

The report recommends that population-based cancer registries work towards statutory notification and routine reporting of all keratinocyte cancers in Australia to monitor trends.

On top of that, it calls for measures to address the growing problem, which should include:

  • support for national mass-media prevention campaigns
  • a strengthening of regulatory measures to protect children and workers from the harms of overexposure to sunlight
  • more provision of shade in public spaces.

With skin cancer often referred to as ‘our national cancer’, the message to slip, slop and slap remains as strong as ever. In fact, it has now been expanded by the Cancer Council to be “Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide”, with the additional advice to seek shade and slide on some sunglasses.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz