Seven out of ten Australians will need a skin cancer surgically removed


There’s an idea that skin cancers that aren’t melanomas are relatively harmless, but they kill around 600 Australians a year.

New modelling from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute shows that nearly seven out of 10 Australians will need to have at least one such skin cancer surgically removed in their lifetime.

These are squamous cell carcinomas and basal cell carcinomas, also known as keratinocyte cancers.

Squamous cell carcinomas make up a third of these cancers, and they’re particularly nasty when they spread.

“The kind of surgery and radiotherapy people need to have when these cancers spread is pretty advanced and horrible,” said Professor David Whiteman, deputy director of QIMR Berghofer, and senior author of the new paper.

“These are not trivial cancers. Fortunately, Australian GPs and dermatologists are good at picking them up and cutting them out early, and preventing them where we can.”

He said people should never be “lulled into thinking ‘I can just ignore it, it’s going to go away’. Because that is definitely not the case.”

Need for routine reporting of this type of skin cancer

The number of cases of keratinocyte cancers is thought to have  increased two to six per cent annually over the last three decades.

Skin cancers are more common in older generations who spent their childhood unprotected. Photo: Getty

Driving this trend, said Professor Whiteman, are ageing baby boomers and older Gen-Xers, aged 55 and above, who spent their childhood outdoors, unprotected from the sun.

This was in the days before Sun Smart messaging, and the years of soaking in blazing sunlight has caught up with them.

The good news is that these skin cancer rates are less for younger people brought up with sunblock, hats, and better midday policing in school playgrounds.

But an accurate picture of keratinocyte cancer prevalence in Australia isn’t available.

The new study looked at the available evidence on national incidence rates and found it “out of date and of moderate quality, but indicates very high rates of keratinocyte cancer in Australia”.

The problem is keratinocyte cancers aren’t recorded in population-based registries, except in Tasmania.

The researchers conducted a review of relevant research papers over a 20-year period and have calculated an estimation of lifetime risk.

They recommend that population-based cancer registries “work towards statutory notification and routine reporting of keratinocyte cancer in Australia”.

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