Charting the Rise of Skin Cancer in Canada

Melanoma is one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Understand which lifestyle factors put you at an increased risk.

Charting the Rise of Skin Cancer in CanadaSource: Environment Canada

Worshippers of the sun god Ra, the Egyptians were just one of several ancient peoples to revere rays. Few modern societies understand this better than Canada, a country enthralled by its summers.

But if we’re to commune safely with the sun, certain rituals must be performed, from slathering sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher) on exposed skin to covering one’s head. And yet the proportion of Canadians who reported using protective clothing as shields from ultraviolet rays decreased significantly between the First National Sun Survey in 1996 and the second one in 2006. Over time, people were also less likely to hear about the UV Index, a tool that can help you plan protection.

Our lapsing sun-safety habits have repercussions: melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, increased between 1986 and 2010 by an average of 1.5 per cent annually in women and two per cent in men. At current rates, one in 59 Canadian men and one in 73 women will get melanoma during their lives.

Nor can we overlook children, over half of whom spend at least two hours in the sun on a typical summer day. It’s estimated that kids who get five or more sunburns double their risk for melanoma later in life. The disease is also more common in people with very fair skin, freckles, naturally red or blond hair, or more than 50 moles.

Darker-skinned people have a built-in defence against UV rays; however, they, too, can get melan­oma from overexposure. They’re also more susceptible to acral lentiginous melanoma, a virulent variety that typically appears on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

Thanks to its visibility, melanoma has one of the highest survival rates of all cancers, with 53 per cent of cases first noticed by patients and 17 per cent by family. With so many people spotting the tumours before they spread, the five-year relative survival rate is 89 per cent.

Despite being one of the only cancers on the rise in Canada, skin cancer is also among the most preventable. “Protecting yourself can easily become part of your daily routine,” says Gillian Bromfield, dir­ector of cancer control policy for the Canadian Cancer Society, “so that’s the good news.”