OPINION: Tans are fading but still too many get burnt

I GREW up with regular family Sunday summer “beach tea” at Nobbys or Bar Beach. I still love ploughing up and down for a few laps at Merewether baths, or body surfing at Dixon Park when I’m in town.

Like most Novocastrians I love the chances to enjoy the delights of the Hunter outdoors.

But there is a price too many Australians pay for the magnificent climate and beach lifestyle.

That price is skin cancer. And the Hunter Region records higher rates than most other regions in NSW and well above the national average.

The Cancer Council has been banging on about sun protection and reducing our skin cancer risk for more than 25 years.

I remember well the first summertime ‘‘slip, slop, slap’’ adverts when I was a teenager.

I was probably sporting a well burnt nose and maybe a few blisters when they went to air.

Time has moved on and we’ve all seen the scary ads of the melanoma entering the bloodstream or the sad story of young Wes Bonny who was diagnosed with a melanoma at the age of 23.

But is it making any difference?

Well, new Cancer Council research released today shows Australian adults are less interested in getting a suntan and fewer are being sunburnt.

The research compares the results of the National Sun Protection Survey conducted in summer 2010-11 with the surveys in 2003-04 and 2006-07.

In the summer of 2003-04, 32per cent of teenagers said they attempted to get a tan, while 22per cent tried to tan up in 2010-11.

Fewer reported getting sunburnt at the weekend – 25per cent in 2003-04, compared with 21per cent in 2010-11.

Adults did better, with 18per cent being burned on the weekend just before they were surveyed in 2003-04, but just 13per cent in 2010-11.

Fewer of us wanting a tan and lower sunburn rates are great and important progress.

But it still means that about 363,000 teens and 2 million adults are still getting sunburnt on any given summer weekend.

We need to get these numbers down.

The sunburnt among us said they ‘‘stayed in the sun too long’’, ‘‘forgot’’ to protect themselves, or the sunscreen ‘‘wore off’’.

Burning during water sports – at the beach, pool or river – was not uncommon.

And a really big worry is the growing gap between men and women when it comes to skin cancer.

Blokes are more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer – one in 14 men diagnosed with melanoma compared with one in 23 women.

When diagnosed, blokes are more likely to die of it.

And there is no reason for that other than the choices we make.

Worryingly, the number of skin cancers reported is still increasing, as prevention efforts today take a generation to be measured in the skin cancer stats.

More than 750,000 non-melanoma skin cancers were diagnosed in Australia in 2010. Figures are estimated to approach 1 million cancers treated by 2015. Frightening!

And we are paying a king’s ransom to treat this preventable disease.

As a nation we are spending more than $500million a year treating skin cancer, and probably less than 1per cent of that on prevention.

It is pure madness to be spending so little on preventing this disease when we are spending so much on treating it.

Some long-term thinking is required as the prevention dollar spent today will yield clear benefits in a few decades.

The Hunter outdoors… love it but don’t die because you love it. Save your own skin and cover up.

Terry Slevin is an education and research director with the Cancer Council.