Changing environment lifts skin cancer risk

WARNING: Contains images of surgical procedure

AFTER going for a regular skin check-up in 2013, Logan resident Lee Scrivener’s doctor performed a routine biopsy on a mole found on Lee’s lower back.

The next day Lee received a call asking him to come back.

It was at this time Lee was informed that he had a basal cell carcinoma and that this needed to be removed immediately.

Lee Scrivener in his lounge room
by Kahlin van der Borgh
Lee Scrivener, who admits he was being constantly sunburnt as a child, was diagnosed with skin cancer as an adult, something that is becoming more prevalent.


Speaking recently to The Argus, Lee said he had most likely developed this particular type of cancer due to spending a lot of time outdoors and not wearing protective clothing.

“We didn’t have iPhones, back in the day, so we had to make our own fun,” Lee recalled.

He said he was being constantly sunburnt as a child.

Experts estimate that two in every three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer by the time they are 70

As the Cancer Council explains on its website, basal cell carcinomas are the most common and least dangerous form of skin cancer but they are just one of three varieties that also include squamous cell carcinomas and the potentially deadly melanomas.

Basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas are referred to as “non-melanoma skin cancers”.


Experts estimate that two in every three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer by the time they are 70 and non-melanoma skin cancers are more common in men, with almost double the incidence of that detected in women.

The Cancer Council has noted that, excluding non-melanoma skin cancers – which are not notified to cancer registries – melanoma is the third most common cancer in Australians.

GPs conduct more than 1 million patient consultations per year for skin cancer

In 2015, 13,694 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma.

Every year in Australia, it said, skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers and the majority of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun.

On its website, the Cancer Council reports that Australian GPs conduct more than 1 million patient consultations per year for skin cancer.

Australia has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world, it says, “two to three times the rates in Canada, the US and the UK”.

“In 2016, 1,960 people died from skin cancer in Australia, 1,281 from melanoma and 679 from non-melanoma skin cancers.”

However, even having a BCC removed can involve uncomfortable localised surgery and may leave scarring, as Lee discovered.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation – whether from the sun or a device – is carcinogenic and exposure can cause melanoma and cancers to the outermost layers of the skin. Queensland has a tropical climate and many people enjoy outdoor lifestyles. Taken together, the result is excessive UV radiation exposure, high sunburn rates, and high rates of skin cancer. Queensland has the highest rate of melanoma in Australia; and Australia the second highest rate in the world after New Zealand. Children and young people’s skin is very susceptible to UV radiation damage and sustaining five or more severe sunburns in this critical period more than doubles melanoma risk. Encouragingly, over recent years young people have made some positive changes with a significant reduction in those who are intentionally seeking sun to get a tan. The benefits are evident with a 46% decrease in melanoma incidence for young people aged 15–29 years since 1995. Melanoma rates are predicted to increase for many years as there is still a continued upward trajectory in people aged over 45 years who experienced sun damage in their youth.
Queensland Health Skin Cancer Prevention Strategy, 2017-2020

According to Queensland Institute of Medical Research’s Professor David Whiteman, despite nearly 2,000 Australians dying each year as a result of skin cancers, most cases remain treatable if detected early.

“In Queensland, our low risk is considered a high risk anywhere else in the world,” Professor Whiteman explained.

“Queenslanders have a higher-than-average international risk,
so a low-risk person in this State should still take steps to protect themselves from the hazards of our UV environment.”

Bachelor of Environmental Sciences graduate Peter Dang explained the nexus between the Earth’s atmosphere and the rising incidence of skin cancers.

“With the depletion of the ozone layer, a higher percentage of UV radiation from the sun will be able to somewhat penetrate through the ozone layer,” Peter said.

While ozone depletion does not cause global warming, it shares the same common cause, according to the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

People, plants, and animals living under the ozone hole are harmed by the solar radiation now reaching the Earth’s surface – where it causes health problems, from eye damage to skin cancer.
The Union of Concerned Scientists

“Global warming is caused primarily by putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when coal, oil, and natural gas are burned to generate electricity or to run our cars,” it notes.

“Carbon dioxide spreads around the planet like a blanket, and is one of the main gases responsible for the absorption of infrared radiation (felt as heat), which comprises the bulk of solar energy.

“Ozone depletion occurs when chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons—gases formerly found in aerosol spray cans and refrigerants—are released into the atmosphere.”

These scientists explain that ozone sits in the upper atmosphere, absorbing UV radiation, a type of solar energy that is harmful to humans, animals and plants.

“The term ‘ozone hole’ refers to the depletion of the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) over Earth’s polar regions,” the UCSUSA site says.

“People, plants, and animals living under the ozone hole are harmed by the solar radiation now reaching the Earth’s surface – where it causes health problems, from eye damage to skin cancer.”

Professor Whiteman said, given the risk of skin cancer, it was very important for everyone to have regular checkups, even if there was no family history of any of these conditions.

Common warning signs, he said, could include changes to spots, blemishes, freckles and moles, but these were best reviewed by a doctor.


People at higher risk of skin cancer are those who:
* have already been diagnosed with skin cancer and/or have a family history of skin cancer
* have a large number of moles on their skin
* have a skin type that is easily damaged by UV radiation
* have a history of bad sunburns
* spend lots of time outdoors, unprotected
* suntan, use or have used solariums or sunlamps
* work outdoors

Checking your skin:
* most skin cancers are found by people checking their own skin, or noticed by a loved one
* find a room with good light and a full-length mirror (if you are on your own, use a hand-held mirror as well
to check skin you cannot see, such as your scalp, back, etc.
* undress and check all of your skin, not just sun-exposed areas (include your underarms, scalp, groin, and the soles of your feet)
* if you notice anything unusual, including any new spots, or change in shape, colour or size of a spot, visit your doctor as soon as possible.

Cancer Council’s Sunsmart website


Words: Stephanie Spencer
Images: Stephanie Spencer / The Argus


Want to read more?
The original version of this story is one of 30 in a special online Climate Change edition of The Argus that was compiled by Queensland College of Art students from a final-year course called Transmedia Storytelling.