December 04, 2001
Under a hot sun, with the vast inviting ocean, blue skies and festive atmosphere, it's easy to be tempted outdoors with little else than a swimming cossie and a pair of thongs. However in Australia, where the temperatures can easily soar over 30 degrees Celsius, high levels of UV radiation - conditions that match that of the African sub Sahara - you cannot afford to be complacent about being exposed to sunlight. Jacqueline Head reports.
It's an alarming fact that one in two Australians will develop skin cancer at some stage during their lives, while close to 1,000 will die each year from melanoma - the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
THE RISK IN GETTING SUNBURNT
About one third of the Australian population suffers sunburn each summer. Our climate is so extreme that the skin of an 18-year-old Aussie is similar to that of a 30-year-old European.
Sunburn is a result of your skin's reaction to UV. When UV penetrates the top layers of your skin, chemicals are generated that cause blood vessels to expand and leak fluids, causing inflammation and redness.
UV radiation can penetrate deep into the layers of skin, affecting skin cells, and this can cause cancer. In the middle of summer you can burn within just 12 minutes.
Most Australians get sunburnt while playing sport, at the beach or at work. Other times when people do not think to cover up, such as at a picnic, watching sport or even driving in a convertible car are major times when people suffer sunburn.
Unfortunately there is nothing that can cure sunburn. According to the Cancer Council the best treatment is to apply a sponge soaked in saline to the affected area and avoid further sun exposure until the symptoms have gone.
Remember that if you have suffered sunburn six times or more you are at high risk of developing skin cancer.
In Australia over 720, 000 skin cancer removal operations take place a year.
SIGNS OF SKIN CANCER
When examining your skin for signs of cancer you should be concerned over any crusty or non-healing sores, changed skin growths such as lumps or moles that are red, pale, pearly, brown black or bluish in colour, and new spots such as freckles that have changed in colour, thickness or shape over a period of several weeks or months.
Two thirds of melanomas arise from an area of normal skin the rest appears from an already existing mole that has changed shape colour or thickness, or a dark coloured spot with rough edges or a small collection of dark bumps. The most common site for melanomas is on the lower legs for women and on the chest and back for men.
Melanoma is the 5th most common cancer in Australia and is the most common cancer in young people. Women have a one in 34 risk of developing the cancer while men are at a much higher at risk with one in 23 chance. Women diagnosed with melanoma also have a higher rate of survival than men.
However survival rates in Australia are becoming increasingly more positive as the population becomes better informed about the dangers of sunburn and the importance of checking their skin frequently
Surgery: performed under a local anaesthetic removes the cancer and a small area of normal skin. This is usually used for melanomas and in the case of large melanomas the local lymph glands are also removed.
Cryotherapy: the skin cancer is frozen with liquid nitrogen, and then peels away. This can leave the skin intensely red for about a week.
Radiation therapy: Not commonly used for skin cancer, and causes a skin reaction similar to that of cryotherapy.
HOW TO AVOID SKIN DAMAGE
With summer now upon us it's important to follow these simple steps on how to avoid sunburn and skin damage from the sun.
- Avoid sun in the middle of the day
- Wear a wide brimmed hat and clothing to cover skin exposed
- Use SPF 30+ sunscreen
- Wear close-fitting sunglasses
- Stay in shade when possible
- Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside so the protective elements have time to bond to your skin, and don't rub the sunscreen in.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours or more regularly if swimming or sweating a lot.
- Remember sunscreen does not offer 100 per cent protection.
Due to constant public education campaigns skin cancer rates, especially in young Australians have now levelled and even begun to fall.
Remember this summer keep your skin safe and if you think you could be at risk of skin cancer see a doctor and get your skin checked immediately.
Statistics and information obtained from the Cancer Council and Sun Smart
By Jacqueline Head
Reprinted with permission from Editforce