A very sunburnt country: Skin cancer rising in Australia

Ciaran O’Mahony

Australia’s sunny weather may be the envy of the world, but it is proving to be both a blessing and a curse.

While we soak up more sun in a month than many countries do in a year, we also have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

New research has shown that this problem is increasing, with non-melanoma skin cancers rising at an estimated rate of 2-6% per year for the last 30 years.

The study, which was published in the Public Health Research & Practice journal last week, estimates that 69% of Australians will have at least one keratinocyte cancer (or non-melanoma) removed from their body in a lifetime.

This group comprises 73% of Australia’s male population and 65% of the female population.

Although numerous “sun smart” campaigns have been implemented over the last decade, many Australians who did not grow up with the familiar “Slip Slop Slap” messaging, are now at high risk.

Associate Professor Catherine Olsen and her colleagues highlighted that the greatest increase in skin cancer was amongst people aged 55 or older.

Photo: kali9 via Getty Images

Professor David Whiteman, a co-author of the study, explained to Guardian Australia that “as our population is living longer and more people move into those age groups that manifest in cancer, they’re now showing the effects of their sun exposure from years and decades before.”

The findings are based on the most recent population-based estimates of keratinocyte cancer incidence in Australia between 2001-2021. The researchers examined data trends over time and calculated the lifetime risk of developing these cancers whilst accounting for competing risks of death.

They also noted that their findings could be an underestimate, given that data on keratinocyte cancers is not recorded in state or territory registries (with the except of Tasmania).

While keratinocyte cancers are less deadly than melanoma, Professor Whiteman urges Australians not to be complacent.

Photo: Carol Yepes via Getty Images

“Keratinocyte cancers kill about 500 people a year, and if not treated they can borrow into nerves on the face and into the head and track back into the brain. People may need to have massive surgery and radiotherapy. So it is a dreadful disease.”

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Specific Interests Dermatology Chair Dr Jeremy Hudson, told NewsGP that GPs across the country have a pivotal role to play as we manage this threat.

“GPs have an absolutely key role and continue to diagnose and manage the vast majority of skin cancers in Australia, particularly in rural, remote and low [socio-economic] areas,” he said.

“Generation X is coming of age,” Dr Hudson said. “We are planning to see a spike of skin cancers in 10 years’ time unless very robust education and preventive action is taken.”

As doctors across the country prepare for this spike, the Federal Government is set to implement Australia’s first national skin cancer campaign in over a decade.

In the meantime, Professor Whiteman says people of all ages should remain vigilant against the sun.

“The good news is that it’s never too late to use sun protection, and that 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.”

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