15 September, 2022

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“Safeguarding your skin: The rising threat of Melanoma in the UK”

The recent hot weather has seen sun-starved Britons piling into parks and beer gardens to soak up the rays- but as a melanoma surgeon I look at all the sunburned skin and worry about the potential damage and the risk of skin cancer.

Increased rates of melanoma skin cancer in the UK

I read with concern the recent news highlighting the rising rates of melanoma in the UK. Malignant melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. It is currently the fifth most common cancer in the UK- and evidence from Cancer Research UK suggests that cases are rising.

New analysis shows that melanoma skin cancer rates have increased by around a third over the past decade and researchers project a record high of 20,800 cases this year in the UK. The statistics are alarming but not surprising, given increased exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and tanning beds, coupled with a lack of adequate sun protection practices among the public.

The eye-catching and hard hitting campaign from the Melanoma Fund emphasises the critical need for sun protection and skin checks while engaging in all outdoor activities, hopefully it will help increase melanoma awareness and protect against skin cancer in the future.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that develops from the pigment-producing cells in the skin. These cells begin to grow and multiply uncontrollably.

Typically, but not always, these cells are darker in colour compared to the surrounding skin.

Melanoma can develop rapidly and spread if not detected early- but the good news is that when caught early and treated effectively melanoma is highly treatable through surgical excision alone.

However, once it progresses to more advanced stages, treatment becomes more complex and the prognosis significantly worsens.

As a dermatologist I want to highlight the critical importance of regular skin checks and early consultation with healthcare professionals if you are worried about skin changes.

How to spot a melanoma

Regular skin checks, both self-examinations and professional evaluations, play a vital role in early detection of melanoma. I recommend performing monthly self-examinations, paying close attention to any new moles or changes in existing ones.

It’s a good idea to take a picture of any moles, so you have a something to compare with in the future.

The ABCDE rule is a helpful guide.

Look out for:

– Asymmetry
– Border irregularity: Get a check if a mole develops irregular or uneven edges.
– Colour variation: Arrange to see your GP or a dermatologist if your mole changes in colour or shade or has irregular dark or lighter patches.
– Diameter: greater than 6mm, or the size of the end of a pencil.
– Evolving characteristics: Seek medical advice if a mole increases in size, becomes red, sore, or inflamed, bleeds or develops a thick or crusty surface

It’s also important to remember that your self-checks should complement, not replace, professional skin assessments. Skin specialists have the expertise to identify suspicious lesions that you might overlook and they can also inspect areas that are hard to see, like your back.

How to prevent melanoma

Most cases of melanoma are preventable – with almost nine in 10 caused by too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. People with fair skin, high levels of sun exposure, a history of severe sunburn, smokers and abnormal or dysplastic moles are at increased risk- but everyone should protect their skin from the sun. A simple guide is to slip, slop, slap, seek, slide.

Slip-on a t-shirt or shirt.

Slop on sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 before you go out in the sun.

Slap on a hat.

Seek shade or shelter, especially in the middle of the day when the sun is strongest.

Slide on some sunglasses.

Sun protection isn’t just for sunbathing or days on the beach, it’s just as important when you’re working outside, walking to the shops or playing sport- many of the patients I have treated for melanoma have had prolonged sun exposure as part of their jobs or during exercise- remember to apply sunscreen before you start an activity, even on cloudy days.

Melanoma treatment

If you are worried about a mole or have been diagnosed with melanoma, it is important to speak with a skin cancer expert about the options available to you.

The primary treatment is surgical removal of the melanoma with a margin of normal skin (called a wide local excision) to prevent local recurrence.

In order to determine if the melanoma has spread further than your skin you may need a sentinel node biopsy. which involves removing the first lymph node that cancer is most likely to spread to.

With early detection and proper treatment, the prognosis for melanoma is often very good and more than nine in ten people survive for more than ten years, but I’d echo the words of Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK:

“Survival from cancers including melanoma continues to improve, demonstrating the substantial progress made possible by research. But it’s vital that people try to reduce their risk of getting the disease in the first place.”

So, enjoy the sun but whether you’re picnicking, running, swimming or playing football please remember to protect your skin and stay safe.


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