The sun has finally got his hat on (bout time!). But while we’re desperate to take off all the layers and feel that longed for heat on our sun-starved bodies, we still need to remember the skin cancer risks.
Sure you probably know a lot of the basics, like the fact that you need to slap on the sunscreen, check your moles for any suspicious changes and that your risk increases if you spend a lot of time on tanning beds or worshipping at the sun alter.
But, you probably don’t know just how common skin cancer is. According to statistics from the British Skin Foundation, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK, and rates continue to rise.
At least 100,000 new cases are now diagnosed each year, and the disease kills over 2,500 people each year in the UK – that’s seven people every day.
Cancer Research UK says that incidence rates for melanoma skin cancer are projected to rise by 7% in the UK between 2014 and 2035, to 32 cases per 100,000 people by 2035.
1 in 54 people will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma during their lifetime.
“Everywhere you look these days, skin cancer is in the news,” says Doctify rated Consultant Dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto.
“This comes as no great surprise to most dermatologists, as the number of melanomas we see each week continues to increase. Data shows that over the last thirty years, rates of malignant melanoma in Great Britain have risen faster than any of the current ten most common cancers (2016).”
Dr Nicole Chiang consultant dermatologist at BMI Beaumont and Highfield hospitals in Lancashire explains that there are three main types of skin cancers:-
Basal cell carcinoma (also called Rodent ulcers)
“This is the most common type, usually appear on sun-exposed areas such as face, back (due to excessive sun exposure in the past in fair skinned individuals). Thankfully, this type of skin cancer is not life-threatening, but it can cause a sore that is slow to heal, and eventually break down to form an ulcer,” she adds.
– red spots or marks that persist for months (whereas an acne spot or infected hair follicle usually goes away within a month), very gradually enlarging
– sometimes, they bleeds intermittently, or the skin breaks to form a sore that is not healing.
Squamous cell carcinoma
“This type of skin cancer is related to excessive sun exposure, it can spread to local lymph nodes. Look out for a rapidly growing red spot, which usually has some crusts on the surface, can bleed and become painful,” Dr Chiang explains.
“This is the most serious type of skin cancer,” explains Dr Chiang. “Intermittent intense sun exposure is a risk factor.”
Melanoma can arise from an existing mole, or come from a completely new mole. “People who have a family history of melanoma are at higher risk (9 times higher) of getting a melanoma than those without a family history,” Dr Chiang adds.
But while exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays is a leading cause of skin cancer, you’re not necessarily risk-free just because you didn’t spend your youth frying yourself with baby oil or having a perma-tan of the sun bed variety.
Here are some of the most significant risk factors of skin cancer and what you can do to reduce them…
“Before you look at moles consider what skin type you are, as this makes a big difference to your risk of skin cancer,” explains Dr Anjali Mahto. “The Fitzpatrick Skin Type classification is a scale for human skin colour and it’s response to ultraviolet radiation.”
Type 1: white skin, blond or red hair, freckles – always burns, never tans
Type 2: white skin – usually burns, tans minimally
Type 3: white skin, fair with any hair or eye colour – sometimes mild burn but tans uniformly
Type 4: moderate brown skin, Mediterranean skin tone – rarely burns, tans well
Type 5: dark brown, Middle-Eastern or Asian skin – very rarely burns, tans easily
Type 6: deeply pigmented or Black skin – never burns, tans very easily
The risk of developing skin cancer is much higher in type 1 skin compared to type 6 skin. However, skin cancer can occur in any skin type.
We all know it, burning is bad when it comes to skin cancer, but according to Dr Mahto, a person’s risk of melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than 5 sunburns. Pretty scary.
Outdoor hobbies and occupation
Unsurprisingly the amount of time you spend outside can have an impact on your risk factor. “Individuals that have worked outdoors (e.g. in the building or construction trade) or enjoy outdoor hobbies such as running or gardening are at higher risk of developing skin cancers by virtue of sun exposure,” explains Dr Mahto. “The same applies for people that have lived abroad in sunny climes.”
Tanning bed use
Sure we know sun bed use can increase the risk of skin cancer, but did you realise how much? According to Dr Mahto tanning bed users are 74% more likely to develop melanoma that those who have never tanned indoors. Yikes!
Family history of melanoma
Approximately 10% of people with melanoma will have a family member with the disease
Lots of moles
“Although the risk of a single mole becoming malignant over your lifetime is very low, the more moles you have the greater the risk,” Dr Mahto explains.
“Often forgotten about, but a compromised immune systems as a result of chemotherapy, organ transplant, lymphoma or HIV/AIDS can increase the risk of melanoma,” Dr Mahto adds.
So how do we reduce the risk of skin cancer?
Be sun safe
“The 2 most important things that we can do is avoid sun exposure or at least limit it,” advises Dr Mervyn Patterson, Woodford Medical.
“The worst time of the day when the sun is at its most intense in the UK is between 11am and 3pm. So this is the perfect time to have a long lunch inside or at least in the shade.”
And don’t be thinking dull days mean you can ditch the sun screen. “SPF 15 or above should be worn every day and all year. UV rays can penetrate through cloud and glass so even days that are not as bright require some sort of protection,” Dr Patterson adds.
Other sun-safe tips from Dr Mahto include:-
- Sunscreen – this should be broad spectrum containing protection against UVA and UVB and a factor of at least 15-30 should be recommended. This needs to be applied at least 30 minutes before going outdoors and reapplied every 2 hours for maximum benefit
- Seek shade particularly between 11am to 4pm
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
- Wear protective loose cotton clothing over the arms and legs
- Try not to use tanning beds
Finding skin cancer early saves lives. FACT. “Melanoma detected and removed early is almost always curable,” says Dr Mahto. “If caught late, there is a much higher chance of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. The 5-year survival rate is 95% for early, stage 1, disease compared to about 16% for late, stage 4, disease.”
“The skin is the largest and most visible organ of the body so often any changes or new moles will be overtly visible unlike cancer of an internal organ. This means that if more people know what to look for, we should be able to detect more melanomas at an early stage,” Dr Mahto adds.
What to look for
The acronym ABCDE can be extremely helpful in evaluating moles. If a mole shows any of these features, it warrants review by a GP or dermatologist to exclude melanoma.
Asymmetry: one half of the mole is different to the other
Border: irregular, scalloped or poorly defined edge
Colour: uneven colour or variable colours within a mole
Diameter: the mole is bigger than 6mm in size
Evolving: the mole is changing in its size, shape or colour
Other signs to look out for include any new moles, a mole that looks significantly different to the others (known as the ugly duckling sign), or any skin lesion that bleeds or fails to heal.
But a changing mole doesn’t necessarily equal skin cancer. “Changing moles do not always represent skin cancer and most moles are usually harmless,” Dr Mahto explains. “It can be normal for moles to change in number and appearance; some can also disappear over time. Hormonal changes during puberty and pregnancy can cause moles to increase in number and become darker.”
Mole Self-Examinations – When? How often?
Most dermatologists recommend skin self-exam on a monthly basis. “The ideal time is probably after a bath or shower and should be carried out in a well-lit room with the aid of a full-length mirror,” advises Dr Mahto.
“Look closely at your entire body including the scalp, buttocks and genitalia, palms and soles including the spaces between the fingers and toes. Use the ABCDE rules above and see your doctor about any concerns,” she adds.
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