Don’t ignore the warning signs

Picture of David Ahern

David Ahern

David is the editor of The Majellan

Cancer is so prevalent there wouldn’t be too many people who don’t know of a friend or relative who hasn’t suffered from some type of cancer.


Cancer not only affects the individual but often the people around them. Fortuitously, treatments these days mean sufferers are living longer lives or are being cured of the disease.


Cancer is not the death sentence it once was.


Personally, I’ve had several skin cancers zapped off my face. All my skin cancers, fortunately, have not been of the deadly melanoma kind and have been easily treatable. I’ve had a basal cell carcinoma cut out of my forehead (ouch!) and numerous squamous cell carcinomas’ dry-iced with liquid nitrogen off my nose and cheeks.


A child of the 60s and 70s, the beach was home away from home in summer and I couldn’t get enough sand and surf! The 1960’s hit by Mary Hopkin, Those were the Days my Friends said it all. Even the occasional blistering sunburn wasn’t enough to deter me, and after several days inside the house shielded from the burning UV rays, I couldn’t get back to the beach fast enough.


Little did I realise that decades later I would pay the price. As my dermatologist use to say, my pale Irish skin and the hot Australian climate were a bad mix. My protestations that I was a fourth generation Australian (and not Irish) did not cut the ice.


Singularly unimpressed my doctor would say, “Always wear a hat and apply sunscreen all over your body”. Sound advice which I regret to say was not always heeded.


Despite the cancer scares there’s something about the warmth the sun provides, especially after a long chilly spell. Like cats curled up on a windowsill, for many — me included – there’s a strong desire to warm the body, hence the magnetic pull of the great outdoors on a bright sunny day.


But as cancer experts often opine, attraction to the sun can be a deadly one. Skin cancer is all too prevalent. And of all the skin cancers melanoma is the most serious and always requires urgent medical attention. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, while less aggressive, still require medical intervention.


If you have moles on your body, experts say they need to be carefully watched. That said, only a few moles will go on to become melanomas but any changes that occur in a mole should raise suspicion. They may include: 

  • any change in the colour of the mole
  • an increase in size, or spread to surrounding skin
  • thickening of the mole
  • bleeding
  • itching
  • In fact, any change in a mole may be a warning, and should be discussed with your doctor


If melanomas are removed early enough, they can be completely cured. More than 95 per cent of patients can be cured with early removal.


In an age when health professionals lament the lack of vitamin D levels in many people, it’s a fine balance between too little and too much exposure to the sun’s rays. The conundrum leaves many bewildered. But like most things in life moderation is usually best.


Experts agree that at the height of summer, say from 10am till 4pm, it’s best to avoid too much sun. It may also be prudent to check the UV radiation levels on a day when you are planning to spend a lot of time outdoors. Other tips include:

  1. Put on a wide brimmed hat so your head, neck and ears are well covered. Also wear tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs, especially if you’re planning outdoor activities like the beach, pruning in the garden, walking or hiking
  1. Erect a large umbrella or a tent if you’re planning to spend the day at the beach, which will provide plenty of shade when you’re not in the water
  1. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen on all exposed areas of your body to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. An SPF of 30+ is recommended. Follow the instructions carefully and apply sunscreen liberally to clean, dry skin at least 20 minutes before you go outside and reapply every two hours, especially after swimming.
  1. Remember to apply sunscreen to those hard-to-reach places like the backs of knees, neck, elbows and ears. Feet should also be included if you’re wearing sandals, thongs or going bare-foot
  1. People can also be sunburnt on cooler or overcast days, when they mistakenly believe UV radiation is not as strong. Remember, it’s not heat that causes sunburn and UV penetrates clouds.
  1. Don’t deliberately lie in the sun to get a tan. This is not only damaging to your skin but might burn you the first few times you try it at the beginning of the summer season. If you want to tan, do it gradually and sensibly, with short exposure at a time
  1. Since it’s hard to put sunscreen around your eyes, wear large sunglasses for a physical barrier
  1. If you do get sunburnt, aloe vera gel is a soothing and a non-toxic solution. Sit on stools or other places with no backs to push or irritate your skin. Sleep with only a sheet to cover you that evening.


While I’d like to think the sun smart message is getting through, both my young adult children have walked in the door at different times with faces like beetroots. They said they understood the dangers, but forgot to put on sunscreen. I fear governments and cancer councils still have much work to do!


World Cancer Day will be held on February 4.


Additional information Cancer Council Australia, Professor John Murtagh, Monash University, wikiHow and WebMD.


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