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Skin checks reveal dark side of sun exposure for surfers, swimmers, SUPs


Sharlene King, media officer at Southern Cross University
30 November 2020
Woman on a blue stand-up paddleboard holding a yellow oar

Surfers, swimmers and stand-up paddle boarders get melanoma at six times the rate of the general population, according to an Australian-first Southern Cross University study.

The findings are based on the analysis of more than 180 ocean users from the Gold Coast and the NSW North Coast who volunteered for skin checks as part of the project. Among them were some of the world’s top-ranked surfers.

The other skin cancers detected, including non-melanoma basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, were also significantly increased compared to other Australians.

Of the 182 participants screened during phase-one earlier this year, almost half (41.3%) were identified as having pre-malignant or malignant skin cancers.

“These phase-one results are quite startling and with summer just around the corner we hope it encourages people to be more mindful of the risks of skin cancer when outdoors, and consider getting a total body skin check,” said project leader Dr Mike Climstein, an Associate Professor in Clinical Exercise Physiology at Southern Cross University.

“Overall, our results show a significantly higher prevalence of premalignant and malignant skin cancers in surfers, swimmers and stand-up paddle boarders compared to the Australian general population.

“Of greatest concern is the melanoma rate detected which is six-fold higher compared to the melanoma rate in the Australian general population,” Dr Climstein said.

Ocean users like stand-up paddle boarders, swimmers and surfers are likely to be most at-risk of skin cancer. The reasons for this are the dangerous levels of UV exposure contained in sunlight while being outdoors and people not using sufficient-enough protective measures during that time.

For phase-two, the research team is developing a more extensive and comprehensive study that will detect melanomas much earlier for people who are regular ocean users. Skin checks will be offered to a larger group, with the analysis bolstered by cutting-edge total body photography to monitor participants with a large number of moles.

The researchers are seeking industry support to purchase the total body photography scanner to conduct the second phase of the study, as well as ongoing biomedical analyses. Future research using the scanner is also planned for other outdoor aquatic enthusiasts.

Adjunct Associate Professor Michael Stapelberg, a specialist general practitioner with a focus on skin cancer and dermatology, has been performing the skin checks.
Using computer-aided total body photography will help monitor participants with a lot of pigmented skin lesions to detect melanoma earlier, he said.

“Given that our current research participants have such a high incidence of skin cancer, we believe a greater number of participants and improved sensitivity in early detection of skin cancer, especially melanoma, will further enhance the impact and findings of this research,” Dr Stapelberg said.

“Hopefully our study will make ocean users more aware and take appropriate precautions, due to their increased risk of skin cancer.”

How to support this research
The researchers are inviting interested sun protection companies and others to partner with this Australian-first project to help in the purchase of the total body photography scanner. For example, philanthropic organisations, suntan lotion companies and manufacturers of clothing like rash vests.

Interested organisations can contact the researchers directly by phone on 07 5601 0495 or email Adjunct Associate Professor Michael Stapelberg at [email protected]    

This Australian-first study assessing the prevalence skin cancers among surfers, swimmers and stand-up paddle boarders is being led by Southern Cross University scientists Dr Mike Climstein, Dr Nedeljka Rosic, Adjunct Associate Professor Michael Stapelberg and Honours student Brendan Doyle.

This research has approval number 2020/47 from the Southern Cross University Human Ethics Committee.