Personnel Image

Written By

Bianca de Loryn

College/Division

College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences

Publish Date

28 May 2021

Skin cancer: preventable and easy to detect

For ‘Don’t Fry Day’, or National Skin Cancer Prevention Day (28 May), Simone Harrison tells us more about her mission to create sun-safe school uniforms based on cutting-edge science.

Every year, more than 2,000 people in Australia die because of skin cancer, even though it is an easy to detect and entirely preventable disease.

Simone Harrison is Director of JCU's Skin Cancer Research Unit in Townsville, and she has been in skin cancer research for more than thirty years. “Skin cancer costs Australia more than any other kind of cancer to treat, not per lesion, but overall,” says Simone. “This is because so many fair people are living in a sunny situation. Of those who develop skin cancer in Northern Australia, almost forty percent develop multiple skin cancers. Many suffer with skin cancer for decades of their lives.”

The three types of skin cancer

But what is skin cancer? Most people have heard about melanoma, which is one of three types of skin cancer, and the deadliest as well.  “Melanoma is basically a tumour that develops in the pigment cells of our skin, the melanocytes,” says Simone. “It is caused by ultraviolet (UV) light, and the majority of our UV exposure comes from the sun and the outdoor lifestyle that most Australians enjoy.”

When it comes to skin cancer, there is more than ‘just’ melanoma. “The other two types are basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SSC)," says Simone. Even though these types of cancer are less likely to be deadly, they can impact the quality of our lives.

“The non-melanoma skin cancers, BCC and SCC, can be quite disfiguring because people often need to have to have these lesions  cut out”, says Simone. “Some people develop ten or twenty of these every year from middle age onwards.”

Northern Australian school uniforms are different

Compared to Australia’s Southern regions with their long and gloomy winters, children in Northern Australia are exposed to the sun all year round.  “ Here in tropical Queensland, most of us still wear summer clothing that exposes a lot of our skin, even during the winter months,” says Simone.

“Many schools in North Queensland don't have a school jumper as part of their uniform,” Simone adds, “because most people don't need to rug up for more than a week or two a year, if at all.”

Toddler in sun protective clothing
Simone Harrison
Photograph by Simone Harrison (right), Shutterstock (left)

Setting standards for sun protective clothing

Studying sun exposure in primary school students

In the early 1990s, when very little skin cancer research had been conducted in Northern Australia , Simone joined a research team that studied sun exposure in primary school students. The team was curious to find out if children in Townsville had more pigmented moles than children from southern cities like Melbourne or Sydney.

The research team was stunned by the results. “All of the six-year-old children we examined in Townsville already had pigmented moles. They had very high numbers, much higher than what we'd seen in Sydney,” says Simone.

The team went on to study younger children from Townsville. They confirmed that the children definitely developed their pigmented moles earlier, and in higher numbers than children from Australia’s south. As the number of moles a person has is the most important risk factor for developing melanoma, this was a sobering research outcome.

Keeping children safe with better daycare uniforms

Also in the 1990s, Simone and her co-workers conducted a sun-safe clothing trial in Townsville daycare centres.  They created a special ‘daycare uniform’ that consisted of T-shirts with elbow-length sleeves, knee-length shorts and legionnaire hats with a back flap. The children also received a long sleeve swim-shirt, a long sleeved Lycra suit and legionnaires hats for home use.

Later, the scientists compared the results to children from other daycare centres in Townsville. “It was clear that the children in the clothing group developed fewer moles than kids that wore their own clothes to childcare,” says Simone.

Sun-safe school uniforms for all Australian children

This research helped the Department of Education and Queensland Health to make recommendations for school uniforms that children would not instantly rebel against.

The recommendations included collared shirts that cover at least three quarters of the way down the upper arms to the elbows, shorts that extend at least halfway down the thigh, and wider brimmed hats, some of which have neck flaps.

“It’s a step in the right direction where we have passive sun-protection in the form of sun-safe school uniforms,” says Simone. “It is comforting to think that Queensland kids are now going to school a bit more covered up.  And it’s important that it happens to all of them at once, so nobody's comparing themselves, saying ‘oh, you know, I like my outfit better than your outfit’.”

Measuring sun protection with artificial intelligence

Looking into the future, Simone has started working on an artificial intelligence project with JCU’s Dr Dmitry Konovalov and a team from the University of Southern Queensland.

At some point, the software will be able to automatically determine how much of a body is actually covered, for example when it comes to measuring a new school uniform.

Previously, Simone says, she was measuring garments by hand. “This was, of course, a bit of a slow approach. But once we have automated the process, it will make the assessment of garment coverage so much quicker.”

This means that in the near future, people might be able to see on a clothing label how sun-safe their shirts or pants actually are.

Saving lives with better sun protection

Australia has always been in the forefront of skin cancer research, setting standards for better skin protection. “It just seems like a positive approach that Australia and New Zealand, the two countries with the highest rates of skin cancer and melanoma in particular, would be paving the way for better standards in terms of sun protective clothing,” says Simone.

Only the future will tell how many lives Simone and her fellow researchers will be able to save with their improved school uniforms. However, they will certainly improve the quality of life for many young Queenslanders who won’t have to go through having as many skin cancers removed from their bodies as their parents today.

Tips for getting into skin cancer research

Simone says that skin cancer research attracts a wide variety of people. “We have people interested in medical research that come from a range of backgrounds: nursing, medicine and the allied health professions.

“Quite a lot of medical graduates are now motivated to be involved in research that is relevant to their community.”

For those who are interested in getting into skin cancer research, Simone suggests that, “JCU’s Master of Public Health is well worth considering because then people get the foundations that that are required in epidemiology, biostatistics and project planning.”

Discover JCU Public Health

Learn more about preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health by becoming a Master of Public Health

Researchers profile picture

Featured researcher

Dr Simone Harrison

Principal Research Fellow

Dr Simone Harrison is a cancer epidemiologist with 30 years experience. She is also the Principal Research Fellow and Director of James Cook University’s Skin Cancer Research Unit and an Adjunct A/Prof at the University of Southern Queensland (UV Radiation Group). Her NHMRC-funded randomised controlled trial is the only study to date to investigate the efficacy of sun-protective clothing in slowing the development of pigmented moles in childhood (a major risk-factor for melanoma).

Simone is a member of Standard Australia’s Technical Committee (TX-21) for the evaluation and classification of sun-protective clothing (AS/NZS 4399); the Queensland Skin Cancer Prevention Alliance, and the Queensland Department of Education’s School uniform advisory panel.

Connect