Skin cancer is on the rise. Despite public health campaigns warning us to stay out of the sun and to wear sunscreen year-round, not just when we’re on holiday, more people than ever before are being diagnosed with skin cancer.
Melanoma, a type of skin cancer that develops from skin cells called melanocytes, is now the 5th most common cancer in the UK and second most common cancer in adults under 50 (which is unusually early compared with most other types of cancer). There are around 13,500 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year. It is thought this is largely due to sun exposure as a result of more people going abroad for holidays. Basal Cell Carcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma are less serious and less in the news but are still significant conditions that require early expert surgical treatment.
Age, family history and lifestyle play a part in your prevalence to skin cancer, and it’s more likely to affect you if you have lots of moles or freckles, pale skin, red or blonde hair or a relative who has had melanoma or other skin cancer diagnosis.
Whether or not any of the above apply to you, it is important to be aware of skin cancer symptoms so that you know what to look out for. Skin cancer can be treated more successfully when it is caught at an early stage. It’s vital to prevent the chances of skin cancer spreading. This happens when a melanoma or SCC grows through layers of skin, entering the wall of a blood or lymph vessel where cancer cells can break off and spread to other parts of the body.
According to the NHS, the most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole. However, because most of us have at least a few moles on our skin, it is easy to let them go unnoticed. Most moles are completely harmless but it’s important to check them regularly so that you notice any changes as early diagnosis and treatment is vital.
There are a number of signs you can look out for which are symptoms of skin cancer. If you have any suspicions whatsoever it’s best to seek medical advice.
Signs of skin cancer
- get bigger
- change shape, particularly if they lose symmetry or develop an irregular edge
- change colour or develop in different shades of brown or black
- become itchy, painful or bleed.
Reducing your risk
It is not always possible to prevent melanoma, but you will reduce your risk of developing skin cancer if you avoid any kind of sun damage to your skin. Melanomas are uncommon in areas that are protected from the sun.
Too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can damage DNA in your skin cells. If enough DNA damage builds up over time it can cause cells to start growing out of control which can lead to skin cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, getting sunburn just once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer. The more often your skin gets sunburnt, the higher your risk of developing skin cancer.
It’s not sufficient simply to stop your skin from burning, you should prevent it from even going pink in the sun.
That means following NHS guidance by avoiding sunbeds and:
- staying out of the sun between 11am and 3pm in particular
- covering skin with clothes
- wearing a hat and sunglasses if you have moles on your face
- using a high-factor sunscreen and re-applying regularly, particularly after swimming. Please note that Cancer Research UK warns against using sunscreens in order to spend longer in the sun, and that shade and clothing are more effective than sunscreen at protecting your skin.
It’s important to be aware that you cannot feel UV rays which is why you can still burn on cool days. The sun’s heat comes from infrared rays which don’t burn the skin.
If you do notice your skin getting sunburnt, more sunscreen is not the answer. You need to come out of the sun and cover up your skin.