By SIAN CAIN.
When choosing what to wear on a night out, I have to consider whether people will see it on my shoulder.
My partner tries to make me feel better about it, but a little voice tells me he must think it’s ugly; and how could he not, something so purple and angry looking?
It is warped and stretched and aches when it’s cold, yet nothing changes that this scar will be mine for the rest of my life.
I have fair skin that never tans and rarely sees sun, yet I had to get a mole removed from my back at 20 years old.
Skin cancer in Australia
Over 25,000 South Australians are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, with over 600 cases of melanoma diagnosed in South Australia alone.
Melanoma is the most common cancer in Australia in the 15-29 age group.
The Cancer Council Australia recommends all Australians check their own skin every three months and have a skin check performed by a professional once a year.
However, a survey by the Cancer Council SA last year showed that 49 per cent of South Australians had not had their skin checked by a GP or themselves in the previous 12 months.
Unlike the screening systems for cervical cancer and breast cancer, there is no national screening system for skin cancer.
Jo Rayner from Cancer Council South Australia says there are no plans to create a skin cancer screening system, because trials in the past were unsuccessful.
“There has been a growing awareness from skin cancer campaigns, education at school, policies in schools; that children wear hats and sunscreen, those sort of things,” Jo says.
“Early detection relies entirely on the individual’s familiarity with his or her own skin.”
I ignored the mole on my shoulder for over a year until my mother noticed it during summer.
Up until then, I thought that I would have my first skin check at around 30 years old, sometime in the future when I had a chance to do some real damage to my skin.
After my earlier-than-anticipated encounter, I realised many people my age feel the way I had.
Every summer, I am inundated with Facebook photos of friends and acquaintances sun baking, going on treks, throwing barbeques, pool parties, usually burnt.
How many of them have ever had a skin check?
The invincible factor
I performed an anonymous survey of the people around me about their skin habits, and the results worried me.
All aged from 18-29, only one third of respondents said they had performed a skin check on themselves or had a professional check, despite two thirds admitting to being sun burnt easily.
Those who had never had a skin check listed an absence of worrying signs, rarely getting sun burnt, being young and being too frightened to be checked, as reasons for not having a skin check.
Anna Siebert is a Melanographer at Molechecks Australia, which is part of the Bedford Medical Clinic.
Anna estimates approximately 20 per cent of her patients are under 30; however, she says this is a dramatic increase from a few years ago, when only 1-5 per cent of her patients were under 30.
“Despite the increase in numbers, I would still say many young people do not take skin checks seriously,” Anna says.
“The whole young and invincible factor plays a significant part.
“I think there is a strong idea that skin cancer is for old people, but it actually affects people of all ages, from children through to the very old.
“I still come across many young people who use solariums [research shows you're 98 per cent more likely to get a melanoma with solarium usage] or people who say, ‘I’d notice if something came up’; when the reality is we diagnose melanoma less than 1mm in diameter.
“I personally would not notice a new spot one millimetre wide if it wasn’t on my chest or face,” she says.
Bronzed beauty: the ideologies of tanning
There is a common perception among Australians, particularly young people, that a tan is sign of healthiness and athleticism.
A survey by the Cancer Council showed 12 per cent of youth in the 12-17 age group believed a tanned person was healthier than a non-tanned person purely based on their skin tone.
“It is a hard perception to break, and I guess our bronzed Aussie image is something Australians pride themselves on,” Jo Rayner from Cancer Council SA says.
“But tanning is a sign of skin cells in trauma; it is just the body’s way of protecting itself from further damage.”
A study by the National Health and Medical Research Council showed a direct link between the level of sun protection upheld by young people and their need to be accepted or fashionable.
Jessica DeDuonni is a red-haired, pale-skinned, 21 year old and says she has always been “innately conscious” of the dangers of sun exposure.
“I’m constantly monitoring my skin for unusual marks or spots and my GP is extremely vigilant in giving me constant skin and sun advice,” Jessica says.
“It angers me when I think of the girls in my class in high school sprawled on the lawn with their uniform up, trying to ‘get their tan on’.
“Partly because it is stupidly dangerous and partly because I could never tan and often associated a healthy glow with being considered ‘hot’.
“There is this unjustified fear of pale skin, which I don’t understand as throughout history, until recently, it was a sign of beauty and health.”
Changing attitudes, changing campaigns
Despite the ideologies surrounding tanning, deliberate tanning rates are on a steady decline, with fake tans rising in popularity among Australian youth.
Cancer Council Australia’s National Sun Protection Survey has shown a steady drop in sun tanning popularity among 12 to 17 year olds, from 60 per cent in 2003-04, to 51 per cent in 2006-07 and to 45 per cent in 2010-11.
Part of this drop has been credited to recent skin cancer awareness campaigns, which have focused on the effects of deliberate tanning, rather than incidental sunburn.
In my survey, the majority showed awareness of skin cancer campaigns, with some describing them as “scary” and “graphic”.
“The one with the [slogan] ‘No degree of tan is healthy’ makes me terrified of tans,” one respondent wrote.
“I’m much more careful but more importantly my attitude has changed – I don’t want a tan anymore.”
Neither do I: tests showed my mole was pre-cancerous, meaning it would have become cancer if I hadn’t gotten to it so early.
Despite fading a little, my scar is still there.
But is a very effective reminder that I see every day, reminding me to enjoy my pale skin and never be careless.
I also don’t mind people seeing it any more.
If anyone asks what it is from, I tell them why its there and the importance of getting to know your own skin.
All Australians should become familiar with their skin- all of it, not just sun-exposed areas.
Perform a self-check every three months. If you notice any changes in shape, colour or size of a spot, or the development of a spot, visit your doctor.
Concerns about any skin cancer can be directed to Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20.
Photo: Kevin O’Mara, Fotopedia