The skin cancer threat: top tips to reduce your risk

Since the ‘slip, slop, slap’ campaign was launched in 1981, most Australians would be well aware of the steps that need to be taken to limit their sun exposure and to prevent skin cancer from occurring. However, despite the success of the ‘slip, slop, slap’ campaign, Australia still has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with the Cancer Council reporting that two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70.

The importance of early detection

Even if all ‘slip, slop, slap’ preventative measures are taken, many Australians will continue to be at risk of developing skin cancer during their lifetime. However, if skin cancer is identified and treated at an early stage, the treatment is often less invasive and may result in a complete cure. For example, Melanoma Institute Australia reports that 90% of people with melanoma are able to be cured by having the primary melanoma surgically removed. Given this, all Australians need to:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the signs of skin cancer and what you should look out for. Reputable organisations, such as the Cancer Council have produced pamphlets listing signs to look out for and contain information on their webpages.
  2. Familiarise yourself with the appearance of your own skin and perform regular self-checks. You may need a close friend or partner to assist with checking your skin in hard to reach places and if you are unsure whether your skin has changed, consider taking photographs so that you can determine whether there have been any changes when you next check your skin.

If you notice any changes in your skin that might be consistent with skin cancer or you have any concerns, seek advice from your doctor.

Even if you do not have any particular concerns about your skin, make sure that you attend for regular skin checks with your doctor. There is no standard interval for undergoing skin checks so you should be guided by your doctor as to how frequently you should present for skin checks. Although most doctors and clinics have follow-up systems in place, consider diarising when your next skin check is due in case you do not receive a reminder.

Find a doctor that you trust

Because early detection of skin cancer is essential, it is important that you find a doctor that you trust. When seeing a doctor, make sure to:

  • Point out to your doctor any areas of your skin that have changed or that are of particular concern to you. Even if the doctor does not have concerns about the areas that you have identified, it will give them an opportunity to explain to you why they are not concerned and impart some of their knowledge to you.
  • Seek advice from trained medical professionals – while some doctors have had additional training to detect skin cancers, and to properly treat those patients or refer them to specialists, other doctors may have limited training and experience in identifying skin cancers.

Bruce’s story

In recent years there has been an increase in delayed diagnosis and/or treatment of skin cancer. This can occur when tests are not performed when indicated to identify whether a lesion is a skin cancer or a skin cancer is identified but the results are not reported to the patient.

For example, in May 2014, Bruce attended a skin cancer clinic to undergo a shave biopsy of a mole on his neck. Unfortunately, it was alleged that the pathologist failed to properly report on the biopsy results that it was a malignant melanoma. As a result, Bruce was given the ‘all clear’.

Two years later, Bruce noticed a lump on his neck. He was sent for scans and a biopsy and ultimately was diagnosed Stage III melanoma, which was shortly upgraded to Stage IV
melanoma — meaning that it had spread to his lymph nodes, chest and other organs.
As a result, he had to undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy and is still undergoing treatment.

Therefore, if you have sought medical advice and do not feel comfortable with the information or advice that has been provided to you, consider obtaining a second opinion.

Skin cancer is often highly treatable if detected early so it is imperative that all Australians familiarise themselves with the signs of skin cancer, regularly check their skin, seek medical advice from trained medical practitioners about the frequency in which skin checks should be performed and ensure that they attend for their skin checks as recommended. Finally, if they are concerned about the advice that has been provided to them, seek a second opinion!

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Sarah Vallance

Maurice Blackburn Brisbane
Sarah is a Senior Associate and Accredited Personal Injury Specialist in Maurice Blackburn's medical negligence department, based in Brisbane. Sarah completed a Bachelor of Laws with Honours at the University of Queensland in 2003 and was admitted as a solicitor in 2006. She ...

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