The story of skin cancer in Australia began over 200 years ago when the first fair-skinned Europeans settled on the shores of Sydney Harbour in 1788.
At least 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70.1 The risk is higher in men than in women (70% vs. 58% cumulative risk of NMSC before age 70 1; 58.5 vs. 39.0 age-standardised incidence rate of melanoma2). The risk of mortality is also higher for men - 69% of Australians who die from skin cancer are men. 3
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. This is due largely to our climate, the fact that many of us have fair skin that isn’t really suited to such harsh conditions, our proximity to the equator (high UV levels) and our social attitudes and love for the outdoors.
According the latest ABS Causes of Death Report , skin cancer (melanoma and other malignant neoplasms of skin (C43-C44) was ranked 20 with 2,094 deaths recorded in 2018 - down from over 2,200 deaths 5 years earlier (2013). 3
For more information refer to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's Skin Cancer in Australia (2016).
Who is at risk?
Everyone in Australia is at risk of developing skin cancer due to our predominately fair skin our high levels of UV radiation throughout the year. However skin cancer risk is categorised into average risk, increased risk, and high risk by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.4
You are at increased risk of developing skin cancer if you have:
- lots of moles or freckles
- fair skin that burns easily and does not tan
- light coloured eyes (blue or green), light coloured hair (blonde or red)
- suffered sunburns, particularly as a child
- a family history of skin cancer
- used solaria
- spent lots of time in the sun, even if sunscreen was used.
Keratinocyte skin cancer (previously termed non-melanoma skin cancer - NMSC)
Keratinocyte skin cancers are the most common cancer in Australia. Cases are not routinely reported to state and territory cancer registries however obtained from population surveys including Medicare records. In 2014 there were close to a million (number of paid Medicare service, not people) keratinocyte skin cancers treated.6 And this figure is set to climb further before it declines. The skin cancers are often self detected and are usually removed/treated in doctor’s surgeries.
In 2015 there were over 633 keratinocyte skin cancer related deaths reported in Australia (441 males and 192 females) . The estimated total treatment cost for these skin cancers during 2010 was $500 million making skin cancer, in financial terms, the most costly cancer burden to the health system. By 2015 this figure was expected to increase to over $700 million.5
According to the AIHW Cancer Data in Australia, despite the high incidence rate of non-melanoma skin cancers, the age-standardised mortality rates (in 2015) were relatively low at 3.5 per 100,000 population for males and 1.1 per 100,000 for females, compared with the high mortality rates of male lung cancer (39 per 100,000), prostate cancer (25.3 per 100,000), and female breast cancer (19.8 per 100,000).
Melanoma in Australia
Recent Australian Institute of Health and Wellfare Cancer data in Australia report show that 13,694 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma in 2015 (7,990 men and 4,704 women) making melanoma the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in Australia (behind prostate, bowel and breast cancer).
There were close to 1,500 melanoma recorded deaths reported in 2015 (996 men and 502 women) (AIHW,2018). Melanoma accounts for approx 11% of all cancers diagnosed in Australia (AIHW ) and is the third most common diagnosed cancer in men and women (AIHW. Cancer in Australia 2014).
Incidence has increased by 214% in males and 150% in females between 1982 and 2016. However, how much of this increase is due to a real increase in the underlying disease, and how much is due to improved detection methods, is unknown (AIHW, Skin Cancer in Australia 2016).
While only a small proportion of total melanoma cases are diagnosed in people under 35 years of age, Australian adolescents have by far the highest incidence of malignant melanoma in the world (one-third of cancers in females, one-quarter in males), compared with adolescents in other countries (Stiller CA 2007). Furthermore, melanoma is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australians aged 15-29 years, and accounts for more than one-quarter of all cancers in this age group (AIHW).
Over 9% of melanoma cases are diagnosed in people aged under 40 years old, 11% in those aged 40-49, 18% in those aged 50-59, 25% in those aged 60-69, 20% in those aged 70-79 and 16% are aged 80 and over. (AIHW- Skin cancer in Australia 2016).
The Economic Impact
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, skin cancer cost the health system over $400 million in 2008-9 ($367.37m non-melanoma and $49.5m melanoma) - the highest cost to the system of all cancers.
The estimated total treatment cost for non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) during 2000-01 was $264 million. In 2010 it was calculated that the total cost of NMSC (diagnosis, treatment and pathology) was $511.0 million. In 2015 NMSC treatment has been estimated to increase to $703 million. Click here for references.
Screening for skin cancer
There is currently no formal screening program for skin cancers in Australia. It is recommended that people become familiar with their skin. If you notice any changes consult your doctor.
1. Staples MP, Elwood M, Burton RC, Williams JL, Marks R, Giles GG. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia: the 2002 national survey and trends since 1985. Med J Aust 2006 Jan 2;184(1):6-10 [Abstract available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16398622].
2. Fransen M, Karahalios A, Sharma N, English DR, Giles GG, Sinclair RD. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia. Med J Aust 2012 Nov 19;197(10):565-8 [Abstract available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23163687].
3. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 3303.0 - Causes of Death, Australia, 2018. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2019 Sept 25 [cited 2020 May]. Report No.: 3303.0.
Available from : https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/3303.0Explanatory%20Notes12018?OpenDocument
4. Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Guidelines for preventive activities in general practice. East Melbourne, Australia; 2012.
5. Fransen M, Karahalios A, Sharma N, English DR, Giles GG, Sinclair RD. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia. Med J Aust 2012 Nov 19;197(10):565-8 Abstract