Skin Cancer Risk

QIMR Berghofer is world-renowned for its expertise in skin cancer research. A new study led by Institute researchers has revealed ways to reduce risk and help doctors to better diagnose and treat a common but little-understood skin tumour prevalent among Queenslanders.

It is estimated about 5,000 Queenslanders, aged 20 years or older, develop keratoacanthomas (KA) each year. These tumours develop on areas of the body commonly exposed to the sun, including the legs, arms and hands.

Senior study author and researcher in QIMR Berghofer’s Cancer Control Group, Associate Professor Catherine Olsen, said the skin lesions were very common among Queenslanders because of the state’s sunny climate.

‘Our study aimed to learn more about these common skin tumours because while they don’t usually pose a serious health risk to patients, testing and removal of the tumours come at a considerable cost to Queensland’s health service,’ Associate Professor Olsen said.

First author and QIMR Berghofer Cancer Control group researcher Dr Magdalena Claeson, who is also a practicing dermatologist, said keratoacanthomas pose a diagnostic dilemma to doctors because they look similar to squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs).

‘Keratoacanthomas develop on sun damaged skin and it’s often difficult to distinguish them from more sinister skin cancers, so doctors tend to recommend medical intervention,’ Dr Claeson said.

‘They can grow quickly and reach 10 to 20 millimetres in diameter in a matter of weeks or a few months. They can also look frightening, even though we know they aren’t usually dangerous like melanomas.’

Researchers found limiting sun exposure, quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol could help Queenslanders avoid developing keratoacanthomas.

The main risk factors include fair skin, freckles and an inability to tan; high levels of sun exposure and sunburn before the age of 10; smoking and the consumption of 14 or more alcoholic drinks a week. Men and all people aged over 60 years are also at greater risk than the general population.

‘Most of these are modifiable behaviours, and if Queenslanders protected themselves better against the sun, stopped smoking and drank within the recommended alcohol guidelines, we could potentially see a drop in these skin tumours,’ Associate Professor Olsen said.

‘We don’t know what the specific biological mechanisms are that lead to these lesions, why they grow so quickly, and we definitely don’t understand why some tumours can resolve spontaneously! Our study has at least provided information that the risk factors for KA are quite similar to those for other skin cancers, and that has not been shown confidently before,’ Associate Professor Catherine Olsen said.

The researchers used data from the QIMR Berghofer-led QSkin study, which is the largest research study ever conducted on skin cancer.

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