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Time to get serious about skin cancer

Thursday 6 December, 2007

As summer gets underway this week, Victorians are being warned to take skin cancer seriously, with latest figures showing 5 Victorians die from melanoma each week, and around 5 are diagnosed with the disease every day.

There are over 40,000 cases of non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancer each year in Victoria, making skin cancer the most diagnosed cancer according to the latest figures released by The Cancer Council Victoria today.

Cancer Council Director Professor David Hill says he hopes the alarming new figures will prompt Victorians to be SunSmart over the coming months.

"Skin cancer is the most preventable cancer. We've been educating Victorians for years about the steps they can take to prevent skin cancer; the only way we can reduce these figures is if people make sun protection a number one priority."

"We're concerned that people are becoming too complacent about skin cancer, and think that it can be simply cut out. Our strong message to Victorians today is that skin cancer is serious, and it can be deadly."

Professor Hill said the Cancer Council's latest statistics showed that:

  • In 2004, 1,959 Victorians were diagnosed with melanoma (1,090 men and 869 women)
  • In 2005, 245 Victorians died from melanoma (159 men and 86 women)
  • Melanoma is the fourth most common cancer in men, and the third most common cancer in women.
  • On average, each year there are more than 40,000 cases of skin cancer in Victoria, with the most common form being basal cell carcinoma, followed by squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma is the least common but most serious skin cancer.

Professor Hill said while there's no doubt we still have a long way to go, the trend data on melanoma rates does show some promising news.

"Our latest data show that although melanoma rates continue to increase in people aged over 60, the rate of increase is slower than the previous decade. The best news of all is that melanoma rates in the younger and middle age groups are declining. These groups who would have been targeted with the SunSmart message in their childhood and adolescence, and suggests that the SunSmart message is having an effect on incidence rates."

The Cancer Council's latest data also shows a significant difference between the most common sites where skin cancer is found in men and women, which can be explained by the differing patterns in sun exposure in men and women.

"The skin cancers largely caused by long term sun exposure are mostly found on the head and neck in men, while we see a higher proportion of these skin cancers on the arms and legs in women."

"In women, melanoma, which is the most serious type of skin cancer and largely linked to repeated sunburn, is most likely to be found on the legs and arms. Men are more likely to develop melanoma on their trunk and head and neck."

Director of Dermatology Department at St Vincent's Hospital, Professor Rod Sinclair, said people of all ages are at risk of skin cancer.

"Unlike some other cancers, skin cancer can affect people of all ages - my patients range from people in their late teens right up to those in their 70s and 80s."

"Young people should not fool themselves that they can't get skin cancer - melanoma is the most common cancer in people aged 12-24, with more than double the number of cases of any other kind of cancer."

"Make no mistake - skin cancer treatment can be a very serious matter. It can require disfiguring surgery and long term monitoring."

Professor Hill said the Cancer Council's research showed a significant proportion of Victorians are still not using the recommended five measures to protect themselves from the sun. Research conducted in 2003-04 found that during their main outdoor activity on the weekend

  • only 19% of Victorians adults wore a wide brimmed hat;
  • only 21% wore ¾ or long sleeved top;
  • only 1% wore a rash vest or long shorts for swimming;
  • only 31% used sunscreen;
  • 55% of Victorian adults wore sunglasses;
  • only 27% primarily stayed under shade when out on the weekend.

"Our research shows there is still a long way to go in changing people's behaviour about sun protection."

The Cancer Council's warning to be SunSmart this summer was reinforced by 21 year old Tara Johnson, whose life changed in February this year after a visit to the doctor resulted in a diagnosis of melanoma.

"Young people tan to feel better about the way they look and to boost their confidence. But an 8cm scar down your arm, as I have, isn't the biggest confidence booster," she said.

"My message to young people this summer is to remember that it can happen to you. Not everyone is as lucky as I am to only have a scar. People do lose their lives to this disease."

Professor Hill said The Cancer Council recommends Victorians protect themselves from skin cancer in five ways, with sun protective clothing, a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and shade.

"Using just one of these measures on its own is not enough," he said.

See our latest overview of skin cancer statistics. For more information about sun protection go to