As we approach warmer weather after a long year, many of us are dreaming of sunny afternoons spent at the beach or in the backyard. However, we are all aware that this could come at a cost – every day, primary care doctors in clinical practice around Australia encounter the negative effects of sun exposure.
Australia experiences some of the highest levels of ultra-violet radiation in the world, primarily because we are close to the equator and have weather conditions that permit many blue-sky days. It is therefore no surprise that skin cancer (combined melanoma and non-melanoma) is the most common type of cancer in Australia. Skin cancer causes more Australian deaths than transport accidents, and every year Australian GPs conduct over a million patient consultations for skin cancer.
While there is no national screening program for skin cancer, skin checks are an important source of early detection. For high-risk individuals, they are especially important – this includes those with a fair complexion, freckles and red hair, those with high UV exposure or sunburn as a child, anyone with a previous melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer, or melanoma in a first degree relative. The risk of skin cancer also increases with age.
During a skin check the entire skin is examined head to toe and any suspicious lesions inspected up close with a dermatoscope. If appropriate, clinical photographs can be taken for monitoring, while plans can be made to remove more suspicious lesions. In addition, self-examinations are recommended 3-monthly for those at high risk (usually requiring the help of a friend or partner). Being familiar with one’s own skin, as well as being aware that new or changing lesions with variable colour and irregular borders could be suggestive of melanoma, is vital.
Even more important however, is prevention. Everyone, especially children, should be following sun smart principles – that is, use of protective clothing, application of sunscreen with SPF >30 every 2 hours, and use of a broad-brimmed, bucket or leigonnaire’s hat. Using shade, sunglasses and limiting sun when the UV index is 3 or more (generally between 10am and 3pm) is also recommended. There are even phone apps that can provide real-time, location-specific information regarding UV levels. So as the days are getting longer and the pool is calling your name – be sun-smart, know your own skin, and consider a skin check.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Guidelines for preventive activities in general practice. 9th edn. East Melbourne, Vic: RACGP, 2016.
Cancer Council Australia (2020) “Skin Cancer Statistics and Issues – UV radiation” [accessed online at https://wiki.cancer.org.au/skincancerstats/Skin_Cancer_Statistics_and_Issues]
Pro Medical SA Dr Melissa Lorenzetti, GP Registrar