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Skin Cancer Explained

Who's most at risk of getting skin cancer?

Find out more about the seven risk factors that can affect your chances of getting melanoma and other skin cancers.
February 29, 2024

Living in Australia comes with glorious sunshine and the great outdoors to enjoy, but on the downside, it also comes with the risks of getting skin cancer such as melanoma. Did you know that Australia and New Zealand have the world’s highest rates of melanoma? It’s the most life-threatening form of skin cancer, and astoundingly, around 13 Australians are diagnosed with melanoma every day.

Along with expo­sure to sun­shine and an out­doors lifestyle, there are a num­ber of fac­tors that can put some peo­ple at more risk of devel­op­ing skin can­cers such as melanoma.

Before you pan­ic, hav­ing one or more risk fac­tors doesn’t mean you’ll def­i­nite­ly devel­op skin can­cer, but it’s impor­tant to be aware of the risks so that you can take pre­ven­ta­tive measures.

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Skin can­cer risk fac­tor 1: Your fam­i­ly history

If one or more of your imme­di­ate rel­a­tives has had melanoma, your risk of devel­op­ing it is high­er. In fact, you’re twice as like­ly to devel­op melanoma if there’s a his­to­ry of melanoma in your close fam­i­ly (par­ents, sib­lings or chil­dren).3 Anoth­er sig­nif­i­cant risk fac­tor is your per­son­al his­to­ry: if you’ve had melanoma once, you have a high­er risk – as much as nine times high­er – of get­ting melanoma again.

Skin can­cer risk
The fair­er your skin, the high­er your skin can­cer risk

As any­one with pale skin knows, those with fair­er skin are more sus­cep­ti­ble to sun­burn and have a high­er risk of devel­op­ing skin can­cers. The Fitz­patrick scale is made up of six skin types that help deter­mine your skin can­cer risk. Types 1 and 2 refer to ivory or very fair skin with nat­u­ral­ly blonde or red hair and light coloured eyes. Peo­ple with these types of skin have a high­er risk of sun dam­age and like­li­hood of devel­op­ing all types of skin can­cers, includ­ing melanoma.

Skin can­cer risk fac­tor 2: Your skin and hair colour

If you have fair, ivory or freck­ly skin – and espe­cial­ly if you’ve been sun­burnt a few times, it’s a good idea to have a reg­u­lar mole check for peace of mind.

If you have olive or dark skin, it doesn’t mean you won’t get melanoma or oth­er skin can­cers. While those with dark­er skins, such as Maori and Pasi­fi­ka peo­ple, have a low­er chance of get­ting melanoma, they often present with thick­er, more seri­ous melanomas by the time they get it checked.2

If your skin is dark­er, you may not need to get it checked as often – a MoleMap Skin Check every one to two years would be a good option for you.

As we age, our skin can­cer risk increases
As we age, our skin can­cer risk increases

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Skin can­cer risk fac­tor 3: Your age

Over 50? The bad news is that you’re in the age group that has a high­er risk of all types of skin can­cer. Around 70% of melanoma cas­es occur in peo­ple aged 50 years and old­er2. Not only that, most non-melanoma skin can­cer (such as basal cell car­ci­no­ma and squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma) typ­i­cal­ly appears after age 50.

So, if you are over 50 and notice any unusu­al or chang­ing moles or sunspots (see what to look for), get it checked by your GP or MoleMap as soon as possible.

Again, while age increas­es your risk fac­tor, being under 50 doesn’t mean you don’t need to wor­ry about get­ting melanoma – it’s less com­mon, but young peo­ple can get it too.

unusu­al moles
Those with high num­bers of moles or unusu­al moles have an increased risk of devel­op­ing skin cancer

Skin can­cer risk fac­tor 4: You have lots of moles

A mole (or nevus) is a non-can­cer­ous, pig­ment­ed tumour. They often appear in chil­dren and young adults and gen­er­al­ly are of no con­cern. But for peo­ple who have a num­ber of moles, the risk of devel­op­ing melanoma is high­er, even up to sev­en times more if you have more than 100 moles.6

If you have a num­ber of moles, a quick once-over from your GP may not be thor­ough enough: it pays to have them checked by a spe­cial­ist skin can­cer detec­tion ser­vice every year.

Skin can­cer risk fac­tor 5: You have unusu­al moles

Unusu­al or atyp­i­cal moles have some sim­i­lar fea­tures to melanoma. They’re often larg­er and may have an odd shape or colour – some­times called ​‘the ugly duck­ling’ as they look quite dif­fer­ent to your oth­er moles. For peo­ple that have more than five unusu­al moles, the risk of melanoma is six times high­er.7

If this sounds like you, or some­one you know, check out the ADBCE guide to spot­ting melanoma so you know what signs to look for.

skin can­cer risk
Every sun­burn increas­es your skin can­cer risk

Skin can­cer risk fac­tor 6: You’ve been sunburnt

Get­ting sun­burnt at any age – whether as a child, teen or adult – increas­es the risk of all skin can­cers, includ­ing melanoma, in lat­er life2.

Sun­burn is sun dam­age, so if you’re out in the sun, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the sum­mer months, fol­low these pro­tec­tive tips — and above all, try to avoid get­ting sunburnt.

And if you have chil­dren, keep them cov­ered up or in the shade. Research shows that sun expo­sure in child­hood gives a greater risk of melanoma than sun expo­sure in lat­er life.

out­doors lifestyle increas­es our expo­sure to UV radi­a­tion
An out­doors lifestyle increas­es our expo­sure to UV radi­a­tion and our skin can­cer risk

Skin can­cer risk fac­tor 7: You have an out­doors lifestyle

If your skin is exposed to the sun reg­u­lar­ly through work or play, this can increase your risk of skin can­cers such as basal cell car­ci­no­ma and squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma.

How­ev­er, in the case of melanoma, recent stud­ies show that there’s a greater risk from occa­sion­al high dos­es of sun expo­sure, such as dur­ing hol­i­days, week­ends and recre­ation­al activ­i­ties, than with more con­tin­u­ous sun expo­sure like work­ing out­doors reg­u­lar­ly9.

Either way, when­ev­er you’re out­doors, make sure you pro­tect your skin in the sun and stay in the shade when­ev­er possible.

high skin can­cer risk

Wor­ried that you have a high skin can­cer risk?

If one or more of the above risk fac­tors apply to you (or to some­one close to you), talk to your GP or MoleMap Melanog­ra­ph­er about the best ways to pro­tect your skin – and which type of skin can­cer check is best for you.

For total reassurance, we recommend having a comprehensive skin cancer check every year, one that includes total body photography and skin mapping to monitor your skin over time. Services like Full Body MoleMap offered by skin cancer clinics can provide thorough examinations for early detection and peace of mind.

So, how can you reduce your skin can­cer risk?

Whether you’re high, medi­um or low risk (take our quick risk check to find out), it’s impor­tant to be real­ly vig­i­lant about both pro­tect­ing and check­ing your skin.

Ear­ly detec­tion is the best pro­tec­tion, so get to know your skin and moles — and check them at least every three months for any changes. If you have any con­cerns, see your doc­tor straight away — and see a skin can­cer detec­tion spe­cial­ist such as MoleMap every year.

And of course, good pro­tec­tion when you’re out in the sun is vital. Check out how to stay Sun­Smart here, or a sim­ple way to remem­ber this is the SPOT rule of thumb:

SLAP on a SPF30+ sun­screen every day.

PROTECT your skin – cov­er up or stay in the shade.

OBSERVE – look for changes in your skin reg­u­lar­ly.

TRACK changes every year with MoleMap.

Learn more about MoleMap’s range of skin check ser­vices, or if you think you’re high risk, book an appoint­ment today.

References:

1. Health Promotion Agency and the Melanoma Network of New Zealand (MelNet) 2017: New Zealand Skin Cancer Primary Prevention and Early Detection Strategy 2017 to 2022.2. Melanoma NZ: https://www.melanoma.org.nz/be-informed/understanding.3. Gandini et al (2005) Meta-analysis of risk factors for cutaneous melanoma: III. Family history, actinic damage and phenotypic factors. European Journal of Cancer, Vol. 41(14):2040-2059.4. Bradford et al (2010) Increased risk of second primary cancers after a diagnosis of melanoma. Archives of Dermatology, Vol. 146(3):265-272.5. Watts et al (2014) Clinical practice guidelines for identification, screening and follow up of individuals at high risk of primary cutaneous melanoma: a systematic review. British Journal of Dermatology, Vol. 172(1):33-47.6, 7. Gandini et al (2005) Meta-analysis of risk factors for cutaneous melanoma: I. Common and atypical naevi. European Journal of Cancer, Vol. 41(1):28-44.8. Ministry of Health: https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/conditions-and-treatments/diseases-and-illnesses/melanoma9. NIWA UV Workshop, 2014: Trends in melanoma incidence and mortality in New Zealand: https://www.niwa.co.nz/sites/niwa.co.nz/files/Sneyd_UV%20Workshop_2014_Melanoma.pdf

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