Press Conference – Parliament House, Canberra – Wednesday 15 February 2023


SUBJECTS: Skin cancer awareness

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Thanks to everybody for coming along, particularly all of my Parliamentary colleagues for coming along, and especially Darren Chester, my colleague in kicking off the Parliamentary Friends into Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness.

We conceived this idea about three years ago and COVID has stopped us from launching this event for three years, but we finally get to do it today. There’s going to be a barbie downstairs at lunchtime where all of the organisations that are doing the research to save lives, as well as helping patients who are recovering from melanoma and skin cancer will be there to tell their stories to you as well. We want to tell you our story because just as this event has been put off for a long time, over the last few years, a lot of people have put off getting their own skin check. And that’s partly because of COVID, but that means that a lot of people have got skin cancer still on their body that’s growing. We want to encourage Australians right across the country today to go and book a skin check with your GP. You’ll get an opportunity in a minute if you grab a camera to go and see what those skin checks look like.

My own personal story is I noticed a mole that was changing shape on my leg, I went and saw the doctor, asked her to cut it off, and it turns out it was melanoma. It was a pretty simple decision, but it was a decision that saved my life. If I hadn’t done that, it would still be on my body and it would still be growing. And I took a photo of it, and I put it on social media, and a lot of people texted me back and said, “I’m going to get a check”.

And about six months later, I was at an event with Graham Perrett, and he said, “can I talk to you in this room?” And he went into a room, and he shut the door and he started taking his shirt off. I thought, what the bloody hell is going on here? And then he showed me his scar, which you might see again in a minute. Graham just said two words: “thank you”. It reminded me that just by talking about it, you do something good, you might get the message out there to encourage other people to get a skin check or get their partner to get a skin check. So that’s what we’re trying to do today. I’ll hand over to Daz to say a few words and then for colleagues to tell their own stories.

DARREN CHESTER MP: Thanks, Jason, and congratulations on your initiative to start the Parliamentary Friendship Group and I was very pleased to be part of the [indistinct] supporting us and our efforts. My story is very brief. As a young man, I noticed a mole changing colours, changing shape on my leg. I went to my GP, and it came off straight away, so a bit of vigilance on my behalf, I was lucky to see it early, and there were no further ramifications. During today, we’ll hear a lot about the numbers, about Australia’s unenviable record of being one of the worst places in the world for skin cancer. But we also know the people. They’re our family, they’re our friends, and in many cases, they’re our work colleagues. And obviously, several colleagues here today have their stories shared.

But I’ve got my notes today written on the Hansard of our friend, the member for Parkes, Mark Coulton. The only reason Mark’s not here today, is because he is in Tamworth having a few more pieces cut off his head. As Mark joked to us all last night, he’s lucky he hasn’t made his career on being good looking. And Mark, right now, has a few black marks around his eyes again and he had a couple of pieces cut off last year. But as much he jokes about it, Mark’s story is a very compelling one for us in the National Party. He worked 50 years out in the sun. Like so many of our constituents in regional Australia, sun protection wasn’t really a feature of their life and Mark is now paying the price in terms of regular appointments, as check-ups had a piece of cut off and we wish him in his recovery at the moment.

But today is an important one for us across the Parliament, in that we’re committing ourselves to using our opportunities, whether we’ve got microphones in front of us, when we’re appearing before our constituents just to remind us of the importance of being vigilant, raising awareness that early action is important. Keeping a very close check on your skin is something you can do, but obviously you need to check with your GP or a specialist if you spot anything out of the ordinary.

Congratulations Jason, thanks colleagues for your strong support, and also thank you to the medical researchers, the nurses, the doctors we’re going to have here today. The work they’re doing really is making a difference, it really is saving lives, and we greatly appreciate your efforts. Thank you. 

LINDA BURNEY MP: Good morning, everyone. The message from me is, just because you’ve got dark skin doesn’t mean you don’t get skin cancer. The only reason that I’m probably standing here is I went to my GP for something else. There was the sign up saying, “the skin checks available”. I thought, oh, well, I may as well. And I had melanoma, which resulted in a very large cut to my tummy and luckily, we got there quite early. But the main message is that all skin types are affected by melanoma. Just because you’re dark doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get skin cancer.

SENATOR ANN RUSTON: Well, I suppose my story is the like many Australians, it was a misspent youth that saw me under the knife at the age of 25. Lucky for me it was BCC skin cancer, which was the least intrusive of them. But I suppose I grew up in a household with a father [indistinct] who’s skin looked more like a patchwork quilt because of the amount of skin cancers he had taken off his face and his body because of spending so much time out in the sun. So, the message is really quite simple: make sure you look after yourself, you know the old slip slap slop, the statement is as true today and important today as it’s ever been, but also make sure that you continue to check and make sure that you are constantly being tested and screened. And that doesn’t just go for skin cancers and melanoma – it goes for every type of screening that’s available. As we know early interventions save lives. We see too often people losing their lives because they haven’t had early screening. So, that’s the message of today. Go and get yourself tested.

LISA CHESTERS MP: Good morning. So my story is a little bit different. I actually had melanoma on my eye. So five years ago, I’d been to a specialist, had the spot checked out and that first assessment was we could remove it, but it’s a little bit of energy, so it’s nothing to worry about. But coming up here, I have colleagues who actually constantly asked me about my eye: if it had been a windy day, my eye looked a little bit more red. Some asked if I’d had a big night out.  But I assured them it wasn’t that. And that prompted me – just colleagues asking me constantly about my eye – to get a second opinion.

And that specialist said, “let’s take the spot off”. That was about five years ago. It was like a small freckle with a few blood vessels coming outside of it. That spot came back as melanoma. Three surgeries later, three days in hospital for radiation treatment and we were able to get all the melanoma and save the eye. It’s really rare, about one in a million get this condition, and over half of them lose their eyes to melanoma because there’s just not enough of a margin. So, it’s not just about checking your skin, it’s also about checking your eyes. It’s not just about wearing a hat, it’s also about wearing sunglasses. Not just good fashion, but also protect your eyes. And that’s my big message today. Check your skin and check your eyes because you might just be that one in a million as well.

DR ANNE WEBSTER MP: I come from the Sunraysia area, which is skin cancer capital of Australia, something we’re not particularly proud of at all. My cancer, BCC cancer, came up in a skin check, with a dermatologist who was in town at that time. I haven’t had a skin check now for a few years because he’s retired, and we have no dermatologists. I think it highlights just how important it is that – go to your GP if you haven’t got a dermatologist and get your skin check, because it could save your life.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK MP: Not very often you get Labor, National and Liberal colleagues all speaking with one voice about a topic, all in agreement. And that’s what we’ve seen today. This is a very important topic. I’m here for Amy Sinclair, she was one day after her 23rd birthday, she died of melanoma. She discovered a lump in her groin when she was just 20. Her parents will be here today at the launch of the Parliamentary Friends of Melanoma and Skin Cancer. I thank my colleagues, but particularly Jason and Darren, for being the Parliamentary co-chairs of this very important group, and I encourage everyone to get a skin check.

CATHERINE KING MP: Thanks. Well, I guess my story is very similar. When I was a young girl, I can remember coming back in the HQ Holden with my parents and the six other siblings. I was absolutely sunburnt and Mum bathing me cold tea and calamine lotion to try and calm it down. But in 2021, I noticed a lump under my nose, which I just couldn’t seem to get rid of. And I thought, you know this is a nuisance and I’ll just go and get it cut off.

And of course, it turned out to be a Squamous Cell Carcinoma. And what they do, they’re non-melanoma skin cancers, and often people think they’re, you know, really not as serious, the BCCs and the SCCs. But if left untreated, they can become invasive, and they can actually cause great harm and even death. So, it’s important to get those regular skin checks. I get an annual skin check. I go through a GP and through a specialist skin clinic when I can access those as well. And that’s really the message for today: is for those who are in my age group now, you know it wasn’t normal for us to have hats on and sunscreen and sunglasses at school. Certainly, we know teenage boys, particularly even now, are incredibly vulnerable. I try to get my 14-year-old to wear sunscreen and a hat and it’s almost impossible. But it has serious implications as you get older. So, get your skin checked and really look after it. It’s the biggest organ in the body, and it deserves to be protected. If you don’t protect it, then you’re in trouble.

GRAHAM PERRETT MP: Thanks very much. I was going to wear this, but no.

Like everyone else, and Jason told you the story. So now I do have that annual check-up. Spent my childhood playing footy, swimming in the river, farm worker, back before sunglasses and hats were even needed. So, missed opportunities there. But we can try and get our kids out – I’ve got a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old trying to get them to take those protections and now I’ll be focusing on sunglasses as well. Get that protection and get that annual check-up as quickly as you can.

JASON CLARE: So, Darren and I and the whole crew are happy to take some questions.

JOURNALIST: Do you believe that obviously there’s been a bit of a drop since COVID with people getting their skin checked. Has that picked up again?

CLARE: There’s about a 20 per cent drop in checks. We’re starting to see that pick back up, which is a really good thing. But, I guess, one of the concerns medical professionals have, is they’re seeing more skin cancers that are more advanced because time has passed, and what might have been a sort of grade one melanoma is a grade one or a grade two or great three. So that just means that it’s more important than ever to get your skin checked.

One thing I forgot to mention, but it sort of helps to put this in context, is that a quarter of the Federal Cabinet has had surgery in the last couple of years for skin cancer. So that’s me, that’s Linda, that’s Catherine, Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher. Five out of twenty Cabinet members have had skin cancer and have had surgery in the last couple of years. But I guess the message – this is not all of us – this is just some of us, is that this is so common. Most Australians will get skin cancer in their life. So don’t ignore it or forget that it doesn’t exist. And take it seriously, because getting it checked could save your life.

JOURNALIST: One maybe for Darren. As a regional MP, do you think there’s potentially a bit more complacency in people living in the region with skin cancer?

CHESTER: I’m not sure I’d call it complacency. I think there’s an attitude amongst people, regional men – she’ll you’ll be right, there’s nothing much to worry about, just a couple of lumps and bumps, they’ll take care of themselves. Our advice obviously as men of the Parliament, is get it checked out.

You know if there’s something unusual going with your skin and you’ve spent a lifetime on a tractor or playing cricket without a hat on or working on a trade site. Chances are you’re going to have some skin remedy that needs to be checked out by a professional.

So, I’m not sure that I’d call it complacency – some of it is about just not – they’re not that great in regional areas about getting checked out. Also, there’s an element of access to services. We need to keep working with the government on reconstructive ways to make sure that services are available in rural communities. No question, it was a challenge with previous government, and we challenged this government is how [indistinct] our regional communities. And Jason touched on the impacts of COVID. There’s no doubt whatsoever that a lot of regional people have delayed health treatment. A lot of city people have done that as well. But again, it’s I think a challenge for regions for the distance involved and as much as we strongly support the Nationals and telehealth provisions, and continue to guide that option for regional people, there are things like skin cancer checks that really do need to face-to-face appointments. We want to make sure we get those professionals out to regional communities, servicing those that don’t live in a capital city.

JOURNALIST: Jason the similar model your electorate’s quite diverse and lots of multiculturalism there. Is there a difficultly getting that slip slop slap message to people that don’t speak English, for people that have come to the country and aren’t used to the Australian slang.

CLARE: Charles, it’s bigger than that. You know, when I talk to oncologists at Liverpool Hospital, I said, what’s the big difference you see in patients coming to see you compared with the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney? And the response is “we see a lot more people with more advanced cancers in the Western Suburbs of Sydney rather than the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney,” for a whole bunch of reasons, cultural, taboos, whatever it is. A lot more people turning up at the hospital with cancers that are much more advanced than they are on the other side of town. And so, we’ve got to try and breakdown those barriers, and encourage people – whether it might be breast cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer – get checks early and get them regularly.

JOURNALIST: Jason, can I just ask a question on RBA stuff?

CLARE: We could do that separately if you like? Yeah, I’m really keen today for us to talk about the things that we agree on rather than get involved in the usual shenanigans. Okay, brilliant. Thanks, guys. Thanks very much.