Rural patients face tougher skin cancer battle

Australia has the highest rates of survival for skin cancer compared to other forms of cancer, but that survival rate falls the further away a patient is from a major city, a federal inquiry into skin cancer has heard.

Lisa McGlynn, from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare told the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health that skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, with over 11,000 cases of melanoma and an estimated 416,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed in 2010.

“Australia has the highest rate of melanoma in the world for males and the second-highest rate for females, second only to New Zealand,” she said.

“While skin cancer is very common, survival rates are among the highest of all cancers. People diagnosed with melanoma in Australia have a 91 percent chance of surviving for at least five years compared with their counterparts in the population.”

Ms McGlynn said this compared with 66 percent survival for bowel cancer and 14 per cent for lung cancer.

In 2011, skin cancer caused over 2,000 deaths, three-quarters of those were from melanoma and over two-thirds of them were among men.

Ms McGlynn said that while the overall rates of melanoma are increasing in Australia, this has been driven by increases in the rates among people aged 60 years or over.

“The number of cases of skin cancer is likely to continue to increase due to Australia's ageing population and the higher rates of skin cancer among these older age groups,” she said.

“In contrast, melanoma rates for those aged less than 60 have been decreasing and are decreasing faster for younger age groups.”

Executive Director of the National Rural Health Alliance, Gordon Gregory, told the inquiry that the further from a major city patients with cancer live, the more likely they are to die within five years of diagnosis.

“The incidence of new cases of melanoma is significantly higher in regional areas than in major cities,” he said.

“Because of the difficulties experienced by rural people in accessing skin cancer diagnosis, their presentations are likely to be later, especially among men.”

Mr Gregory said farmers had a 60 percent higher death rate due to melanoma and other malignant skin cancers than the general population, and skin cancer deaths in farmers 65 years of age and over are more than double the rate of other Australians in that age group.

“Skin cancer awareness, early diagnosis and management should therefore be given a high priority in work to support and extend the expertise of existing health professionals in rural and remote areas,” he said.

“Professional development and further education on skin cancer detection should be made available to all health professionals working in those areas.”

Mr Gregory said better support could be provided through more training in skin cancer for health students, continuing professional development for health professionals in rural and remote areas and enhanced access to and support for clinical decision making support tools such as teledermatology and other telehealth programs.