Melanoma…………..baby steps

imageSomething really big happened in NSW yesterday…….something that is so significant that the health of hundreds of thousands of people will be impacted…………………..

Context…….I did my nursing training at Sydney Hospital.This is the beautiful old hospital with the statue of the pig out the front. In those days, this was a referral hospital for patients with melanoma who were admitted from all over the country to be treated by one of three specialists who were world leaders in their field. Australia after all has regrettably always been the melanoma capital of the world. It is no surprise that our treatment for melanoma has been first rate.

Anyway, as a 17 year old witnessing first hand the debilitating effects of this cruel and aggressive cancer, I struggled to reconcile the high incidence of melanoma with our evidence based knowledge that this  disease was so preventable. It just didn’t make sense to me.

And then, along came the ‘slip slop slap’ campaign  ie slip on a hat, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat.  Australians finally took prevention seriously. We started to ‘get’ that our northern hemisphere  genetic codes did not equip us to lather our bodies in baby oil and fry in the sun. Yes, the landscape changed and we started to get a strangle hold on this deadly disease. It was under control.

So I thought.

Years later, on a sea change experience, my husband and I purchased a business in a coastal regional centre. The business we purchased was one that deliberately catered to my skills and passions. We designed, manufactured and exported sun protective swimwear (or ‘rashies’ as they became affectionately known -see above) to the USA, UK, Europe and Asia. The irony of the fact that we ‘exported’ was never lost on me.   Interestingly, we had no Australian market!

To  get back to the story, at some stage our US and UK distributors asked us as the manufacturers,  for some marketing material. Specifically, they wanted to know  how Australia had been so successful in imparting the sun safe message and getting their kids to wear 50t sun protective swimwear.  No problem! I could give them all the stats they needed! Australia was a master at the prevention of skin cancer!

But to my shock and horror, I uncovered alarming statistics that frankly, appalled me. I could not conceive of how far we had gone…………backwards! I was genuinely troubled by this. I just couldn’t fathom it. Why was this happening?

At about the same time it dawned on me that our children were developing a passion for campaigns that targeted other issues of global importance. I decided that if they felt strongly enough about climate change to turn the tap off while I was cleaning my teeth then couldn’t they take the bit between the teeth and become passionate about  skin cancer and sun protection?

So I wrote  and published a children’s book……..The beach with no sun……….it Imparted the sun safe message. And I lobbied the Department of Education to have it  added to the school curriculum.I wrote letter after letter after letter in a bid to get the ear of either the Department of Health or Education.  But it was a full time commitment …….a luxury I could not afford.

Some years later, still on  my hobby horse I volunteered to join the Cancer Council of NSW in its campaign to convince the Department of Education to implement guidelines on sun protection in primary schools in NSW. The objective was to have mere recommendations replaced with guidelines to which was attached a ‘mandate’.To date, sun protection during school hours has been the purview of the parents and in a country with  a history like ours, this doesn’t auger well for the prevention of melanoma. It was more a case of history repeating itself from generation to generation. And of course, the parents are not at school. Anyway, the 3 year campaign involved personal meetings with local MPs and appealing to them to lobby the Minister for Education.

My point? The campaign has been successful! After 3 long years of slogging and intensive lobbying  (on top of many years before that) I am thrilled to tell you,  effective this week, children in NSW primary schools will have their vulnerable young skin protected during the most dangerous times of the day….school hours. The Minister for Education has mandated that guidelines on sun protection be introduced into all primary schools. This is major step forward in the prevention of melanoma in NSW and is BIG news because it sends a very powerful message to our kids who will go forth and sprout the message to future generations (hopefully).

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