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Cricketers suffer high rates of skin cancer and injuries

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Published
11 January 2004
'Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ is a well-known Noel Coward song, but could apply to Australian cricketers also.

The consequences of playing the most popular summer team sport in Australia - cricket - all day in the heat of the summer sun are high rates of skin cancer, a new study at Southern Cross University (SCU) in northern NSW shows.

The study by Janelle Noble-Jerks in SCU's School of Exercise Science and Sports Management found 56 per cent of cricketers surveyed, aged between 45 and 55, had had at least one skin cancer, most often on the face.

Ms Noble-Jerks’ study into skin cancer rates in cricketers was part of wider survey into long-term consequences of injuries in cricketers.

She surveyed 164 male former representative cricketers who had played with the Emu Club, an organisation established in northern NSW in 1946 to encourage the involvement of country-based cricketers in playing representative cricket on international tours or against international touring teams.

“Playing cricket in the heat of the summer sun can produce debilitating short-term effects such as sunburn, dehydration, temporary blindness, sunstroke and heat stress, as well as increase the potential for long-term effects such as skin cancer,” said Ms Noble-Jerks, whose father and son are keen cricketers.

“There has been minimal investigation of the relationship between playing cricket and suffering from skin cancer,” she said.

The study involved former cricketers aged from 19 to 76, with a mean age of 45, and an average playing career of 26 years, starting on average at age 10. It found that overall 38 per cent of players surveyed had been diagnosed with at least one skin cancer. It is difficult to compare this with figures for the general population because the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer is not routinely collected by cancer registries. The only figure that vaguely compares is the 2002 National Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Survey estimate that 374,000 Australians aged 14 to 70, or 0.03 per cent, had been treated for skin cancer in the past year.

In the study, researchers found the highest rate of skin cancers was in the 45-55 age group with 56 per cent of cricketers affected; compared to 51 per cent of players aged over 55; 33 per cent of players aged 35-45; and 13 per cent of those aged under-35 years.

“It is difficult to say why the 45-55 years group was higher than the over-55 years,” Ms Noble-Jerks said. “The data otherwise shows an increasing incidence of skin cancer with age. These statistics indicate that further research is required to investigate whether cricketers are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer at a younger age than the general population.”

The study also found sun protection strategies had changed over the years. Younger men were far more likely to have worn sunscreen while playing cricket than older players: 95 per cent of under-35s said they always or usually wore sunscreen, compared to 31 per cent of over 55s.

“The use of sunscreen is a relatively new phenomenon, gaining in popular use since the late 1970’s with the increased awareness of sun exposure dangers,” Ms Noble-Jerks said.

Few sports involve as much sun exposure as cricket, which is played for many hours during the day eg Test matches and top grade local games are played from 10am to 6pm throughout the summer months. For school age players there is also school cricket during the week.

“The better you are at the sport the more you are exposed to the sun,” Ms Noble-Jerks said. “No other sport comes close in terms of the amount of sun exposure.”

In the wider survey, the 164 cricketers reported a surprisingly high total of 503 injuries, with 90 being classified as major, meaning five or more consecutive games were missed, while 413 were reported as significant, meaning fewer than five consecutive games were missed.

Sixty per cent of all players reported an 'adverse consequence' from their cricket injuries, including limitations on current activities, such as pain, incurring medical costs, and causing their early retirement from cricket.

One third of players reported having arthritis, mostly of the knees, shoulders or fingers. Medical evidence showed a link between the cricket injury/injuries and arthritis in 13 per cent of case, while a further 21 per cent of players perceived a link between their injuries and arthritis.

“There have been limited studies on the long-term consequences of injuries to players in contact sports such as rugby league and union, but to our knowledge none into the non-contact sport of cricket anywhere in the world,” Ms Noble-Jerks said.

Ms Noble-Jerks' supervisors were Dr Robert Weatherby and Mr Rudi Meir, also in the School of Exercise Science and Sport Management at SCU.

Case study
Warren Noble, 62, from Lennox Head on the NSW north coast, is a former representative fast bowler and President of the Emu Club who played cricket from age 10 to 40, including playing against touring countries such as South Africa and England at a regional level. Mr Noble has had five knee arthroscopies (an operation to scrape away cartilage) and ‘dozens and dozens’ of skin cancers removed since about the age of 40, and now has them removed on a six-monthly basis. “I’ve no doubt that playing a lot of cricket out in the hot sun all those years with very little cover is a big factor: I’d often come home with my face as red as a lobster. Back in our time, in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, we didn’t tend to wear hats, which is unbelievable these days, and we never wore sunscreen. We just didn’t think about it.”
He believes the knee injury and arthritis are a result of his many years of fast bowling on concrete or hard turf wickets. He will eventually need a knee replacement. “As a fast bowler I had a fair bit of slamming on the pitches,” Mr Noble said. “My doctor says the arthritis in my knees is from thumping my legs down on the wicket for too many years.” However he counts himself lucky he doesn’t have a bad back like most fast bowlers.

For more information contact SCU Media Liaison Sara Crowe Ph: 6620 3144 or Brigid Veale Ph: 02 6659 3006 or M: 0439 680 748.

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