Awareness is key to the prevention and early detection of cancer. But which symptoms should be most in focus at each life-stage? Lisa Rabbaque investigates.

20s

Melanoma

Why at this age? Melanoma is one of the biggest medical killers of younger Australians, says professor John Thompson, director of the Melanoma Institute Australia, so it’s important to know the warning signs.

Prevention tips:

  • Avoid sunburn at all costs. Professor Thompson suggests using physical UV barriers like protective clothing, a hat and staying in the shade, especially between 10am and 3pm.
  • When out in the sun, cover up and wear a waterproof, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30+.
  • Don’t think a solarium is safer. There’s very strong evidence linking sun beds to melanoma and other types of skin cancers.
  • Professor Thompson advises checking your skin for changes once a month, enlisting the help of a partner to check those bits you can’t see yourself. “People who have a personal or family history of melanoma or those with lots of moles should have their skin regularly checked by a professional,” he adds.

Look out for:

  • Anything unusual on your skin, especially spots or moles that change in colour, shape or size.
  • Spots that itch or bleed persistently.

30s

Breast cancer

Why at this age? Deaths from breast cancer have dropped by 27 per cent since 1994, mostly thanks to better detection strategies and improved treatments. Your chance of getting breast cancer when you’re much older is about one in nine, but the risk is still one in 250 for a woman in her 30s so it’s important to be breast aware now, says Sue Carrick, head of research at the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Prevention tips:

  • Check yourself. Be aware of how your breasts feel and look so you can pick up any changes.
  • If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, speak to your GP.
  • Maintain a healthy weight, especially if you tend to store fat around your belly.
  • Exercise can make a difference. “There is evidence that exercising at least 30 minutes a day may help reduce your risk,” says Carrick.
  • Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables like broccoli.
  • Watch your alcohol. More than one drink a day raises your risk.
  • Breast really is best. “The longer a woman breastfeeds during her lifetime, the less likely she is to get breast cancer,” says Carrick.

Look out for:

  • New lumps, especially if only present in one breast.
  • Changes in breast size or shape.
  • Changes to the skin of the breast: dimpling, redness.
  • Nipple changes: redness, crusting, inversion, discharge.

40s

Bowel cancer

Why at this age? Your risk of developing bowel cancer increases from 50 years onwards, but people with a first-degree relative who developed bowel cancer at a young age (under 55), or who have colitis or inflammatory bowel disease should be thinking about screening for bowel cancer in their 40s, says Dr John Riley from Bowel Cancer Australia. “There’s anecdotal evidence that the incidence of colorectal cancer is increasing in younger age groups,” he adds.

Prevention tips:

  • Eat a diet low in fat and high in fibre with plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to increase bowel health and reduce your bowel cancer risk. Limit your red meat intake to twice a week or less.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • See your doctor, especially if you have had a relative under 55 with the disease, to see if you may be eligible for a free bowel cancer screening test.
  • Exercise regularly at least 30 minutes of activity on all or most days.

Look out for:

  • Blood in the stool.
  • Changes in bowel habits.
  • Abdominal swelling or pain.