Turning the tide of skin cancer

Whole generations of Australians have grown up with Cancer Council’s iconic sun protection messages. Thanks to our pioneering education, awareness and research programs we're now seeing a significant drop in melanoma rates in Australians under 40.

Skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, with the vast majority of skin cancers, including melanoma, being caused by overexposure to UV rays. Despite this, around 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with a skin cancer in their lifetime and almost 2,000 people lose their lives to skin cancer each year.

The good news is the tide is changing, with melanoma rates in Australians under 40 dropping and a significant decline in the number of young people seeking a sun tan. Much of this success can be attributed to Cancer Council and the help of our supporters – working over four decades to change sun protection attitudes and behaviours.

The beginning of Cancer Council’s skin cancer prevention story

It all started in 1981 with the launch of Cancer Council’s iconic Slip-Slop-Slap campaign, which encouraged Australians to slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat. Now extended to include Seek shade and Slide on sunglasses, the campaign has become a feature of the Australian summer, forming a strong foundation for Cancer Council’s cost-effective SunSmart programs that have followed since.

Slip Slop Slap was a slogan that well and truly resonated with Australians. It’s been so successful that it’s become part of our every day language.

Adjunct Associate Professor Craig Sinclair
Head of Prevention, Cancer Council Victoria

From the very beginning, Cancer Council has placed a strong focus on young people to establish healthy sun behaviours, protecting them from skin cancer as they grow up. Understanding that children are particularly vulnerable led us to develop the incredibly successful SunSmart Schools and Early Childhood program, which today protects over 2 million Australian children across the country by encouraging them to protect themselves against the sun in the playground.

The program has led to significant and long-lasting behaviour change across Australia - an amazing achievement from a program that is maintained primarily through the work of Cancer Council and our supporters. It has also been extended beyond the school yard, with implementation of important sun protection factors in workplaces and outdoor areas.

The SunSmart schools and early childhood program has led to massive behaviour change across the country and we’ve shown that this leads to reduced cancer rates later in life.

Heather Walker
Chair of the National Skin Cancer Committee, Cancer Council Australia

Of course, being SunSmart is an important message for everyone which is why Cancer Council comes together with the Australasian College of Dermatologists every year for National Skin Cancer Action week, bringing attention to one of Australia’s most common cancers and reminding all Australians to protect themselves from the sun’s deadly UV rays.

Cancer Council also has a huge impact on how skin cancer prevention is delivered globally. In 2015 Australia became one of the pioneering countries to ban the commercial use of solariums, largely thanks to the lobbying and campaign work of Cancer Council and its allies. Commercial solariums expose users to intense UV radiation which significantly increases the risk of cancer, and it was Cancer Council’s heart-wrenching campaign “No Tan is Worth Dying for” featuring a young Australian woman named Clare Oliver, which helped raise awareness about this cancer risk. After developing advanced melanoma from her own use of solariums, Clare bravely shared her story from her hospital bed, asking people to “choose life, choose to be fair” – a message that eventually impacted commercial solarium attitudes in Australia and around the world.

Grounded in evidence

Importantly, underpinning all of Cancer Council’s policy and program development is evidence. For example, Cancer Council’s National Sun Survey, conducted every three years, has been an essential source of information on the sun protection beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of Australians. It has enabled Cancer Council to precisely target programs, measure their impact, then refine them to maintain their effectiveness.

The evidence shows we’re now seeing a direct impact, with a significant reduction in melanoma in Australians aged under 40 – a trend experts say is thanks to prevention campaigns like SunSmart. The rates of young people preferring a suntan have also dropped from 60% to 38%, and as the SunSmart generation grows older, we're expecting to see the drop in cancer rates continue.

Rates of melanoma are dropping in the under 40 age group, consistent with the effect of the Cancer Council SunSmart program since the 1980s - which is a great outcome.

Adjunct Associate Professor Craig Sinclair
Head of Prevention, Cancer Council Victoria

Looking to the future

But there is still much work to be done. Around 2,000 Australians are still dying from skin cancer every year, so it’s essential that we continue to prevent Australians becoming complacent about sun protection. With the generous support of the community, through donations and the purchase of Cancer Council sun protection products, we can continue to build upon the success of our SunSmart programs so all Australians are empowered to protect themselves from the harmful effects of the sun.

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Looking AheadWe won’t rest until we’ve dramatically reduced the significant impact cancer has on every member of our community.