Is Your Skin Safe?

For generations, Australians have been told using sunscreen is an effective way to stop skin cancer, but have we been lulled into a false sense of security?

By Ashleigh Gibson

Dr Greg Canning, a general practitioner with a special interest and additional training in skin cancer medicine and surgery, is concerned for the health of Queenslanders.

“People think melanoma is prevented by using sunscreen. Well, in fact, there is no evidence in scientific literature that sunscreen use per se reduces melanoma,” he said.

A study conducted at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Nambour concluded that ‘melanoma may be preventable by regular sunscreen use in adults’. However, Dr Canning said the rate of melanoma in that sample was so low that the statistical significance of it was debatable.

“There is a common perception that the sun causes melanoma, but in fact melanoma occurs more frequently in people who are pre-disposed genetically to get the cancer,” he said.

Of the three types of skin cancer, the majority are basal cell carcinoma and squamous-cell carcinoma which, although not as lethal as melanomas, must still be removed.

Dr Canning said data from 2007- 2008 shows melanoma only represents three per cent of all skin cancer diagnosed in Australia.

“The least frequent skin cancer causes the most fatalities. The much more common ones can certainly cause problems, but they are much less likely to be lethal,” Dr Canning said.

“People talk about skin cancer and melanoma as though they are the same thing. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer, but it is the least common variety out there.”

Donna Pacey, a mother of five, has recently had her eighth basal cell carcinoma (BCC) removed.

“My GP has explained to me that the damage I have to my skin was done 30 years ago,” she said.

She grew up on the coast of New South Wales at a time when protecting one’s skin was not a priority.  Hours spent outdoors were a normal part of life.

“I would just play on the beach, especially when I was a teenager, sun baking and using coconut oil,” she said.

When a lump appeared on her ear, Ms Pacey thought nothing of it. It was only when a friend suggested she see a doctor that the possibility of skin cancer became apparent.

“The first cancer I ever had was on top of my ear. It was like a sore that never healed. I never used to take much notice of it,” she said.

After many years of repeated occurrences, Mrs Pacey has grown more aware of the possibility of another BCC.

“I know what they look like now, and as soon as I see one, I go to the GP and show her. We will keep an eye on it to see how bad it is and how big it might be getting.”

Ms Pacey recently underwent her biggest procedure yet, where two BCCs were removed from her left shoulder. She accepts the physical evidence of the cancer will stay with her forever.

“This shoulder will never see the light of day because I now have this horrific scar,” she said.

A common excuse for sun tanning is obtaining a daily intake of vitamin D, but Dr Canning said this was a complete misconception involving more risk than reward.

“Vitamin D is an incredibly important vitamin. It can be produced in the skin from a precursor or you can take it as a dietary supplement in an active form,” he said.

Lucy Holland, a naturopath at Health and Wellbeing in North Ward, said not many people realised they were vitamin D deficient.

“Most of us don’t have enough vitamin D and the ‘Slip Slop Slap’ message has really taken hold. People are putting on hats, sunglasses and sunscreen and the sun’s not getting through,” she said.

She recommends people take daily supplements to get their vitamin D levels up.

“A maintenance dose would be 1000 international units a day, which is usually one capsule,” she said.

Dr Canning agrees that it’s better to stay out of the sun and take a supplement than be in the sun, risking skin cancer.

Furthermore, he pointed out that there is still a lot of research to be done on vitamin D and its appropriate intake level per individual.

“It depends on the latitude where you live, the season, your skin type and on the amount of skin exposed,” he said.

The doctors told Mrs Pacey that although they removed all the cancer for now, it’s very likely more will appear in the future. It’s the price she payed for a childhood spent tanning on the beach.