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Is skin cancer fatal? The truth about one of Australia's biggest killers and how you can help prevent it

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With National Skin Cancer Action Week starting on Sunday 18th November, it has never been more important to raise awareness of skin cancer, and knowing how to prevent it. While the prevalence of skin cancer is very high in Australia, mortality rates have been declining since the 1980s. Even people diagnosed with melanoma have an overall 5-year survival rate of 90%. Still, melanoma is responsible for the majority of skin cancer deaths in Australia, and, if discovered late, poses a serious health risk, making early detection vital.


Survival rates for skin cancer


According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, melanoma accounted for 3.8% of all deaths from cancer in Australia in 2016. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, the other two types of skin cancer, accounted for 1.2% of cancer deaths in Australia in the same year, despite being the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the country.


Factors influencing a favourable outcome included being between 0-39 years old, female, and being diagnosed when the tumour was still below 2 mm in thickness. Generally, survival rates are always higher in people who have been diagnosed at earlier stages of the disease. While this does not mean that skin cancer immediately becomes untreatable when diagnosed later, it’s a good incentive to check your own skin regularly, go to professional skin checks once a year and to book an appointment as soon as possible if you notice any changes on your skin.


Prevention saves lives


The main cause of skin cancer is exposure to UV radiation coming from the sun. While direct sunlight is the most damaging, UV radiation can also get through clouds, which is why it’s so important to apply sunscreen even on overcast and cold days. Sunburns and tanning are both associated with skin cancer, and while tans do offer some very limited protection from sunburns, they do not protect your skin cells from the damaging effects of UV radiation.  


An important factor in lowering mortality rates for all types of skin cancer has been an increasingly-aware public. Australians have become more and more responsible about going to the doctor early for screenings and detection and protecting our skin from damaging UV radiation. This involves applying SPF 30+, wearing sun protective clothing, wearing hats and sunglasses and seeking shade whenever possible.


The best way to know how much protection you need on any given day is to check the UV index, because neither the temperature outside nor the amount of clouds in the sky are reliable indicators of the actual risk. It is generally recommended to use protection measures when the UV index is 3 or above, because that indicates high levels of dangerous radiation. In Australia, that is the case on most days, which is why every weather service will indicate during which hours of the day it is best to avoid the sun or only go outside with protective measures taken. This way, you can ideally protect your skin and make sure that you take all possible preventative measures to avoid skin cancer.


If you’re concerned about your skin, make an appointment with the team at SunDoctors today. We look forward to hearing from you!

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