While we love basking in the sun, no one wants to be diagnosed with cancer. So, let’s learn how to protect against skin cancer this summer…

With our beautiful beaches and bushveld, South Africa is one of the leading outdoor adventure destinations in the world. Ironically, it also has one of the highest monitored ultraviolet levels globally. This results in the country’s population having one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world.

In 2013, according to the 2013 National Cancer Registry, 23 704 incidents of skin cancer were diagnosed (13 923 males and 9 781 females).

Frequent exposure to sunlight is the main cause of skin cancer, so it is important to remember to be responsible while having fun in the sun.

Mrs South Africa diagnosed with skin cancer

The newly crowned Mrs South Africa, Nicole Capper, a skin cancer survivor says, “As a cancer survivor, sun protection is a massive focus for me. Being diagnosed with malignant melanoma at 25 rocked my world, but I was lucky to have caught it early enough. We’re so aware of other potential health concerns and we make sure we visit specialists annually for other standard check-ups, and yet our skin is neglected for the most part, often until it’s too late. Sunscreen is always healthy. And regular dermatologist appointments should be mandatory. We owe it to our families and communities to stay healthy, and our skin is no exception.”

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South Africa has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world – CANSA

3 Main types of skin cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer that can affect everyone – regardless of skin type, age or ethnic background.

The two most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. These are linked to long-term exposure to the sun, for example, people with professional sports careers or outdoor occupations. If left untreated, these can lead to disfigurement, or the loss of an eye, nose or ear, so early detection is important.

The third type is ‘malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer and is linked with short, sharp bursts of over-exposure, so even one incident of a bad sunburn, especially in childhood, can later on in life, trigger damage and develop into a melanoma. If detected and treated early, it can be successfully treated.

People with darker skins are also at risk

Although people with darker skins are at a lower risk of melanoma than lighter skinned people, the majority of basal cell carcinomas in people with darker skins occur in sun-exposed skin, indicating that sun protection is paramount, regardless of pigment.

In darker skins, 70% of melanomas have been reported to be below the ankle and appearing on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

Related: No-one is safe from skin cancer in South Africa

You can burn in the shade

While shade is a valuable means of protection from the sun’s UV rays, reflection from the water, sand and glass may also cause sunburn.

How to protect against skin cancer

The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) advocates the following steps to reduce skin cancer risk:

  • Avoid direct sunlight between 10:00 and 15:00, when the sun’s rays are most dangerous. Babies younger than six months old should never be exposed to direct sunlight.
  • Cover up by wearing thickly-woven hats with wide brims and loose-fitting clothes made of tightly-woven fabric that is cool, but that will block out harmful UV rays.
  • Look for UV protective swimsuits and beachwear as UV radiation can penetrate fabric. Swimwear and umbrellas bearing the CANSA Seal of Recognition should also be part of your protection kit.
  • Apply generous amounts of sunscreen, frequently, with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) between 20 and 50, and for fair skin, between SPF 30 to 50.
  • Look for the manufacture or expiry date on the sunscreen package. Sunscreen usually expires two years after manufacture date, and once opened the product should not be used for longer than one year.
  • Use sunscreen bearing the CANSA Seal of Recognition
  • Protect eyes by wearing sunglasses with a UV protection rating of UV400

Screening

It’s essential that skin is regularly checked for changes, unusual marks or moles. An annual medical examination should include a skin check and also a check of the top of the head, back, or back of the legs.

CANSA has mole-mapping dermoscope devices called the FotoFinder used to examine moles and help lower the risk. Every client with suspicious skin damage is referred for an intensive skin evaluation. Examinations are available at some CANSA Care Centres.

Find more information regarding types of skin cancer on CANSA’s SunSmart web page.

Sources: Gloster HM Jr, Neal K. Skin cancer in skin of color. J Am Acad Dermatol 2006;55:741-60 and Hudson DA, Krige JE. Melanoma in black South Africans. J Am Coll Surg 1995;180:65-71

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.