The sun has not set on skin cancer
4:00pm Saturday 21st September 2013 in News
SUMMER may be over, but that doesn't mean we should all simply forget about skin cancer until next year. Abi Jackson goes for a post-summer mole check.
Another summer's over and, once again, I failed in my mission to get through it without a single patch of sunburn.
I'll readily admit that in my younger years I'd deliberately opt for a low SPF sun cream at the beginning of summer, allowing a quick 'flash-fry' to intensify my tan.
But as I've got older, a little more sensible and better informed, I've realised that the very temporary reward of a deeper glow isn't worth the longer-term punishments.
I love sunshine, and I'm a firm believer in its benefits, but the 'flash-fries' are certainly out, the sun cream is always factor 25 or higher and I even look for shade. But despite these best efforts I still managed to end up with crimson shoulders this July.
"If you have a history of sunburn, this doubles the risk of melanoma and also increases the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer," says Anna Gucova, senior screening nurse at The Mole Clinic (www.themoleclinic.co.uk), the UK's leading private skin cancer screening and diagnostic centre.
In fact, studies have found that as few as five sunburns can double a person's risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.
In 2010 more than 12,000 people in the UK were diagnosed with malignant melanoma, and it caused 2,209 deaths in 2011.
Many more people (around 100,000) were diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers - mainly basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) - but these types are generally easier to treat and very rarely life-threatening, though they can lead to scarring.
Most worrying of all is the rate at which malignant melanoma cases in the UK are rising and, while the majority of people who die from the disease are older, this form of cancer is disproportionately high in younger age groups.
More than a third of cases occur in under-55s, with more than two people aged between 15 and 34 diagnosed every day.
"It's worrying to see rates of malignant melanoma have more than quadrupled over the last 30 years in Great Britain," says Yinka Ebo, senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK.
"This highlights the dangers of getting too much UV radiation and the need for everyone to enjoy the sun safely. We all need some sun, but it's important to avoid getting sunburnt, whether at home or abroad."
Indeed, experts have suggested that part of the reason cases have soared is because Britons are enjoying more holidays overseas than ever before.
But it's still possible to get sunburnt here in the UK. Despite our nation's reputation for its abysmal weather, it's at home where I've mostly been caught out - not realising how hot the sun was, or thinking anything less than an hour outdoors isn't worth bothering with SPF.
My mother was diagnosed with melanoma, despite the fact she's only been abroad a handful of times and never sunbathes. She was lucky - the cancer was caught early and didn't spread.
A friend, a bit of a sun worshipper who's treated herself to the occasional sunbed (a huge risk factor), had a mole removed recently because it was rubbing on her clothes and irritating her - only to discover, after it was routinely sent to the lab for checks, that it contained pre-cancerous cells.
Anecdotes like this are becoming increasingly common. Skin cancer is something we need to be more aware of - and while awareness campaigns at the start of summer are very important, monitoring skin for changes is also crucial and applies long after that sunshine break has ended.
"Looking after your moles is an all-year job," says Gucova, who recommends checking at the beginning of the summer, when skin's palest, and at the beginning of winter (a tan will make moles appear darker than they normally are).
It's especially important to keep an eye out for changes if you're at higher than average risk.
"Some people are more prone to skin cancer than others," adds Gucova. She points out that the biggest known risk factors include sunbed use, a history of sunburn (particularly severe sunburn which caused blistering), having fair/light hair and eyes and skin colouring, with the palest - Skin Type 1 and 2, who sunburn easily and don't tan well - most affected.
"People with 100-plus moles, a personal history or family history of melanoma, or those with many atypical (irregular) moles are also at higher risk," she adds.
With all of this in mind, I book myself in to The Mole Clinic for my first ever post-summer check.
What happens during a mole check?
The Mole Clinic offers thorough top-to-toe checks, using special hi-tech tools to spot very early signs of changes, before they may be visible to the naked eye.
The clinic's specialist nurses have screened more than 50,000 people so far. My appointment begins with a series of questions about my history, so that Gucova can assess my general level of risk for developing skin cancer.
Next, I'm asked to strip to my underwear and stand on a mat while Gucova looks at my skin, using a special magnifying glass to view any moles and markings close up.
The key warning signs are changes in existing moles and strange new ones, particularly any irregular borders, bumps or colourings.
Basal cell carcinomas can begin life looking like innocent dry, red patches or small sores that don't heal or go away. Gucova checks a stubborn dry patch on my hairline, which has been there for a few years. Thankfully, she assures me that it's a harmless keratosis - excess build-up of skin - and nothing to worry about.
Since I don't have a lot of moles, it takes around 10 minutes for her to check my whole body.
If any suspicious signs had been spotted, photos would have been taken using a specially-developed powerful camera for the next stage of checks.
Gucova says none are required in my case, so I head back to work. Later on, a full report of my assessment is emailed to me. It states that no further action's required right now.
But my overall risk of skin cancer comes back as 'above average', so I pledge to take even more care in the sun from now on, and follow Gucova's advice of keeping an eye on my skin all year round.
Know your skin: The 'ABCDE' checklist "It's a good idea to get to know your skin and look out for any changes," says Cancer Research UK's Yinka Ebo. "If you notice any unusual changes, go and see your GP. When melanoma's diagnosed and treated at an early stage, most people can be treated successfully."
Gucova says that having an annual professional check is advisable, particularly if you fall into the 'increased risk' categories - and if you're 'high risk', two or three checks might be sensible.
In the meantime, everybody should keep an eye on their own skin, following this guide: A: Look for moles that are asymmetrical in shape, where one half of the mole is unlike the other B: Does the mole have an irregular border? Is it scalloped, jagged or poorly defined?
C: Is the colour of the mole different from one area to another or does it have different shades of tan, brown or black?
D: Check the diameter of the mole to see if it is bigger than 7mm (about the size of the end of a pencil) E: Is the mole evolving or changing size, shape or colour?
Comments are closed on this article.