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South Africans at Higher Risk of Skin Cancer 

Afrikaanse Media Vrystelling 

10 May 2024The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) says that while May marks the end of summer for South Africans with winter fast approaching, it’s also Melanoma Awareness Month, reminding us to continue to be sunsmart throughout the year, no matter the weather conditions.  

#SunSmart #CANSASunSmart #SkinCancer #LowerCancerRisk #CANSASmartChoice

Dr Donny Fick

“South Africa could become the skin cancer capital of the world,” says general medical practitioner Dr Donny Fick, who raised awareness for skin cancer when he took part in this year’s Two Oceans run half marathon in April this year.   

“I used the event to place the spotlight on skin cancer because South Africa has high running participant numbers, with an increasing number of people having taken up the sport since COVID-19.   

Fick says, while he is not saying there is a connection between more runners and a higher occurrence of skin cancer, he says runners focus on the proper shoes and nutrition but not so much on protecting themselves from the sun.

“Not enough runners use sunscreen and very few wear hats. Using the Two Oceans as a platform was an attempt to educate not only the runners but also the rest of the population about the harmful effects of the sun.”  

Figures prove that South Africans are at a higher risk of skin cancer. Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, is one of the top five cancers in the country among men and women. (National Cancer Registry, 2022).  The May melanoma awareness drive focuses on cancer risk reduction and early detection which applies to most types of cancer. It means adjusting lifestyle choices if necessary to lower the risk of cancer and to keep a watchful eye for warning signs that need to be checked by a medical professional.  

Melanomas develop in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour. Melanomas can develop on any skin colour and anywhere on the body, including the head, neck, eyes, under the fingernails, the genitals and the soles of the feet or palms of the hands. They can be similar in colour to a mole, have no colour at all or be slightly red. While melanomas most often develop in areas that have had exposure to the sun, such as the back, legs, arms and face, they can also occur in areas that don’t receive much sun exposure and can show up inside the body too.  

All ethnic and racial groups are susceptible to melanoma; however, the typical patient has a fair complexion and a tendency to burn in the sun, even after a brief exposure to sunlight. Although there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to sunlight results in the development of melanoma, lesions are most commonly found on sun-exposed areas of the body. Other risk factors include the occurrence of a previous melanoma in the patient and in a close family member, that is, a parent or a sibling.  

According to Lorraine Govender, CANSA National Manager of Health Programmes, “We advocate to check your spots, it’s a highly presentable cancer, you can easily detect it on your skin.” 

CANSA also advises companies whose employees work outside in the sun, such as in the agricultural or building industries, for example, to ensure they have adequate protection against the sun. Look out for sunscreens, clothing, hats, and summer accessories that bear the CANSA Seal of Recognition.  

“Even when you are driving, you need to protect yourself,” she explains. “Certain UV rays penetrate windows.” She adds that they also penetrate clouds, so you still need to wear sunscreen on overcast days.  

Ficks says that the sooner people start using sunscreen the better. “Protecting yourself from the sun slows down the aging process,” he says.  Govender agrees. “Sunscreen should be a mandatory part of any beauty regime for both men and women. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 20 or higher, according to skin type.  

“Men can be really bad at remembering to use sunscreen,” says Fick. Part of his awareness campaign is to emphasise that men also need sun protection. “Just do it,” he says, “You will thank me later.”  

In South Africa, the risk of melanoma seems to be increasing in people under 40, especially women.   

Signs and Symptoms of Melanoma 

To help identify characteristics of unusual moles that may indicate melanomas or other skin cancers, think of the letters A, B, C, D and E 

  • Asymmetry: Halves might not match when you draw a line through the mole. 
  • Border irregularities: Edges may be scalloped or notched. 
  • Colour variations: Different shades or unconventional colours may appear. 
  • Diameter: Moles that are wider than a pencil eraser. 
  • Evolving characteristics: Encompasses any change in size, shape, colour, elevation, or new symptoms like bleeding or itching.

Cancerous (malignant) moles vary in appearance, with some showing all the changes listed above, and others having only one or two unusual characteristics. The first sign of a melanoma is usually a new spot or an existing mole or freckle that changes in appearance. Some changes can include growing in size or evolving; edges that are irregular rather than smooth and even; a range of colours such as brown, black, blue, red, white or light grey and moles becoming itchy or bleeding.  

For more information on how to reduce the risk of skin cancer, go to cansa.org.za for fact sheets on melanoma, and ways to be sunsmart.  

(For more information, please contact Lucy Balona, Head: Marketing and Communication at CANSA at email lbalona@cansa.org.za. Call 011 616 7662 or mobile 082 459 5230.) 

CANSA offers a unique integrated service to the public and to all people affected by cancer. CANSA is a leading role-player in cancer research and the scientific findings and knowledge gained from our research are used to realign our health programmes, as well as strengthen our watchdog role to the greater benefit of the public. Our health programmes comprise health and education campaigns; CANSA Care Centres that offer a wide range of care and support services to those affected by cancer; stoma and other clinical support; medical equipment hire, as well as a toll-free line to offer information and support. We offer a Tele Counselling service in seven languages free of charge. We also supply patient care and support in the form of 8 CANSA Care Homes in the main metropolitan areas for out-of-town cancer patients and CANSA-TLC lodging for parents and guardians of children undergoing cancer treatment.

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