Skin Cancer Explained

Can young people get skin cancer?

Sadly, the fact is that young people CAN get skin cancer. While it’s relatively rare, adolescents and young adults do get melanoma and other skin cancers – and the consequences can be heart-breaking.
MoleMap Team
April 29, 2021
9 minutes

In this arti­cle, we look at the rea­sons young Aus­tralians are being affect­ed by skin can­cer, the sta­tis­tics, sto­ries and risk fac­tors and impor­tant­ly, how you can help pro­tect the young peo­ple in your life.

It’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that skin can­cer such as melanoma only affects ​‘old peo­ple’ – and it’s true that most melanomas are found in peo­ple aged 50 years or old­er1. But younger peo­ple can also get skin can­cer and unfor­tu­nate­ly, they do.

What’s real­ly shock­ing is that melanoma is the most com­mon can­cer affect­ing 15 to 39-year-old Aus­tralians2. In fact, it’s pre­dict­ed that every year, an aver­age of 1,700 Aussies will die from melanoma of the skin — that is one Aus­tralian every five hours3, includ­ing younger peo­ple. In the US, melanoma is the lead­ing cause of can­cer death in women aged 25 to 30 years.

Melanoma and oth­er skin can­cers are treat­able if diag­nosed ear­ly, but if the can­cer spreads to oth­er parts of the body, they can be fatal.

So, no mat­ter what your age, the risk of melanoma and oth­er skin can­cers such as basal cell car­ci­no­ma and squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma needs to be tak­en seriously.

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Dear melanoma’ — Emma’s story

If you need fur­ther proof of the risk of the dan­gers of skin can­cer in young peo­ple, watch this video. Diag­nosed with Stage 4 melanoma at just 21 years of age, Emma Betts cre­at­ed ​‘Dear Melanoma’ a blog to raise aware­ness of the risk of melanoma in young peo­ple, before she passed away last year.

Today’s sun expo­sure: tomorrow’s skin cancer

While melanoma is rare in chil­dren and teenagers, get­ting sun­burnt as a young per­son can ​‘lay the ground­work’ for skin can­cers in lat­er life, includ­ing melanoma.

In fact, the lat­est research shows that sun expo­sure in child­hood gives a greater risk of melanoma than sun expo­sure in lat­er life4. And it all adds up– recent Aus­tralian research shows that the more time you spend unpro­tect­ed in the sun – even for short bursts — the high­er your risk of melanoma.5

It’s vital to be vig­i­lant about pro­tect­ing your chil­dren, teens and young adults from the sun at all times – and by edu­cat­ing them about the risks of pro­longed sun expo­sure and indoor tan­ning. No one wants to get skin can­cer, at any age.

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Young peo­ple and melanoma – a grow­ing health crisis?

Younger adults often spend more time in the sun and tend to par­tic­i­pate in out­door activ­i­ties more than old­er age groups say experts, also it's important to note that excessive alcohol consumption can also increase the risk of skin cancer. Many young adults still believe that a tan makes them look bet­ter and that they’re ​“invin­ci­ble”. Worse still, many ado­les­cents and young peo­ple are refus­ing to wear sun­screen and to wear a hat in the scorch­ing sun.

As this video shows, Aus­tralian doc­tors are pre­dict­ing that in five or ten year’s time, we’ll be fac­ing a health cri­sis, when more and more young peo­ple are like­ly to be diag­nosed with skin cancer.

So who is most at risk of skin cancer?

Whether young or old, some peo­ple have a high­er melanoma risk due to fac­tors such as skin type or fam­i­ly his­to­ry. If your skin colour is light or pale, your hair colour is red or blonde, you burn eas­i­ly, your skin is already sun dam­aged, you’ve used sunbeds, and/​or you have a larg­er num­ber of moles (par­tic­u­lar­ly fun­ny-look­ing moles), your risk lev­el is higher.

How­ev­er, hav­ing olive or dark­er skin (and dark­er hair) doesn’t give you a pass from the risk of skin can­cer. While dark­er-skinned peo­ple have a much low­er chance of get­ting melanoma, they often have thick­er (more seri­ous) melanomas once they’re detect­ed6.

And any­one with a per­son­al or fam­i­ly his­to­ry of melanoma is at greater risk too. If a close rel­a­tive (such as a par­ent, grand­par­ent, sib­ling or child) has had melanoma – or if you’ve had a melanoma removed – your risk is much higher.

If you’re not sure what your risk lev­el is, take our 1‑minute risk check here.

A sun tan means sun dam­age, at any age

Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, there’s no such thing as a ​‘healthy tan’. In fact, did you know that hav­ing just five or more sun­burns can dou­ble your risk of melanoma7 in lat­er life.

In fact, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion has iden­ti­fied solar UV radi­a­tion as a proven car­cino­gen, with stud­ies link­ing it to about 90 per­cent of non-melanoma skin can­cers and about 86 per­cent of melanomas, as well as pre­ma­ture skin aging7.

It’s easy to think you’re bul­let-proof and skin can­cer-proof when you’re young, but chances are that it will catch up with you lat­er on. Younger peo­ple are more like­ly to have greater UV expo­sure due to sun-seek­ing behav­iour and increased par­tic­i­pa­tion in out­door activities.

If you feel you need a ​‘glow­ing tan’, using fake tan­ning lotions has been proven to be a much bet­ter option. And if you are out in the sun, reduce your risk of sun­burn by mak­ing sure you ​‘slip, slop, slap, wrap’ and MoleMap.

Are tan­ning beds safe for young people?

In a word, no. Using tan­ning beds is not rec­om­mend­ed at any age – to tan or to boost your Vit­a­min D lev­els. In Aus­tralia, com­mer­cial tan­ning beds have been banned in all states and ter­ri­to­ries since 2016 – for good rea­son. That’s because UV radi­a­tion (the radi­a­tion that caus­es a sunbed to give you a tan) is proven to increase your risk of melanoma and oth­er skin can­cers8.

The more often you use sunbeds, and the younger you start using them, the high­er your skin can­cer risk. What’s more, your skin will also age more quickly.

Emily’s sto­ry: a short jour­ney with melanoma

UK teen, Emi­ly Hay­ward was diag­nosed with malig­nant melanoma (skin can­cer) when she was just 17, after dis­cov­er­ing a mole on her calf. Two years lat­er, a scan revealed the can­cer had returned and had spread to her lymph nodes, and lat­er to her lungs, liv­er and brain.Emi­ly shared her jour­ney through her own YouTube chan­nel, as she want­ed to show the raw side of can­cer: the side that isn’t usu­al­ly doc­u­ment­ed. Emi­ly didn’t want to be defined by her diag­no­sis. She want­ed to raise aware­ness of melanoma and to also show that you can still live life to the full while going through can­cer treat­ment or fac­ing a ter­mi­nal diag­no­sis. ​“I’ve just got to live my life know­ing that this could be it,” she said.

Emi­ly passed away after a sev­en-year bat­tle with melanoma, but not before she’d spread the word about the dan­gers of melanoma for young peo­ple to her thou­sands of followers.

How often should you get your skin checked?

Emily’s sto­ry is a fright­en­ing reminder that, no mat­ter whether you’re young, old or some­where in between, it’s a good idea to self-check your skin and moles reg­u­lar­ly (at least every three months) — and the skin of your loved ones.

We also rec­om­mend hav­ing a skin check every one to two years if you’re low to mod­er­ate risk – or a comprehensive mole check like our Full Body MoleMap every year if you’re mod­er­ate to high risk. Not sure of your risk lev­el? Take our quick risk check right now.

Don’t know what to look for? Check out this arti­cle to know what is melanoma on the ear­ly signs of melanoma and oth­er skin cancers.

What hap­pens if there is a mole of concern?

If an at-risk mole is diag­nosed dur­ing your skin check at the skin cancer clinics, there are a cou­ple of options. The der­ma­tol­o­gist may rec­om­mend mon­i­tor­ing the mole to see if it changes over time, and you’ll be asked to come back for a fur­ther check in 3 to 6 months. If it needs imme­di­ate exci­sion (removal), you’ll be referred to a spe­cial­ist to have it removed.

Skin can­cer pre­ven­tion tips – for any age

No mat­ter whether you’re young, old or some­where in between, it’s vital to use Sun­Smart mea­sures when you’re out in the sun, even if it’s just for a few min­utes. This not only helps to pro­tects your skin from skin can­cer, it’ll also help pre­vent wrin­kles, sun spots and hav­ing skin that looks like leather in lat­er life.

This includes apply­ing a broad-spec­trum SPF30+ sun­screen every day (even in win­ter months), wear­ing a broad-brimmed hat, sun­glass­es and pro­tec­tive cloth­ing when you’re in the sun, and reduc­ing your sun expo­sure between 10am and 4pm dur­ing day­light sav­ings months.

Your old­er self will thank you for it one day!

1,2,3. Melanoma Institute Australia: 4. 5. 6. 7,8. World Health Organisation:

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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