A land of drought and flooding rains … and skin cancer 30 Nov 2016

Initial results from an Australian-first pilot study have indicated the men and women who work the ‘sunburnt country’ are getting more melanoma than even their rural, non-farming counterparts, with dire consequences.

As part of his Doctor of Medicine degree, Griffith University graduate Keegan Hunter is investigating the number of diagnosed skin cancers amongst patients in the Darling Downs region of south-east Queensland.

The investigation aims to compare the burden of treated non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) and melanoma amongst patients who identify as farmers when visiting their local GP.

“There have been studies completed internationally comparing rates of NMSC and melanoma amongst outdoor workers, but never in Australia, using histologically confirmed clinical data, with a specific focus on the farming population compared to non-farmers in the same rural community,” Keegan said.

Last Summer, Keegan began a pilot investigation at Clifton Community Health Services on the Darling Downs.

He reviewed hundreds of electronic billing records of treated non-melanocytic and melanoma skin cancers, cross-referencing with histology and biopsy reports, with the aim to determine the true number of confirmed and treated skin cancers amongst farmers and non-farmers.

“The preliminary analysis found a significant increase in risk of Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) in the farming population, versus the non-farming population, living in the same geographic location,” Keegan said.

An increased risk of melanoma was also identified in the farming population, with further studies this Summer to establish whether the elevated risk is identified in other Darling Downs communities.  

With the support of a Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) scholarship, Keegan will expand the research project this summer, investigating medical records at a further seven GP clinics on the Darling Downs.

“The research will aim to provide an evaluation of the excess risk Australian farmers may hold in developing all forms of skin cancer, because they are a high-risk occupational group,” Keegan said.

The Lead Researcher of the joint USQ/Griffith Agricultural Health and Medicine Research Group project, Professor Scott Kitchener, said specific health research targeting farming communities was vital. 

“Identifying actual risks faced by farmers is important evidence that can be used to encourage farmers to manage those risks for skin cancer, and ensure they present for an early check-up,” Professor Kitchener said.

“As a sector, the agricultural community has work to do to ensure it is being as sun smart as possible to minimise these cancers, that appear at a much higher risk than others in rural communities.”

The initial results showing increased non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancer in Australian farmers will be presented at the 2016 Gold Coast Health and Medical Research Conference tomorrow on Thursday, 1 December, by the lead researcher on the project and Keegan Hunter’s research supervisor, Professor Scott Kitchener.

“It’s important for farmers to know that taking simple measures to reduce their UV exposure will reduce their risk of skin cancers,” Professor Kitchener said.

“Their local GP is well placed to diagnose and manage skin cancers, so they should attend for regular visits to have these diagnosed as early as possible.”

For more information about the Primary Industries Health and Safety Partnership, visit