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Your Questions Answered


1. How common is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, with over 100,000 cases annually. 1 in 10 Britons will be diagnosed with skin cancer during their lifetime.

The incidence of both non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers has been increasing over the past decades. Currently, between 2 and 3 million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers occur globally each year. One in every three cancers diagnosed is a skin cancer and, according to Skin Cancer Foundation Statistics, one in every five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

As ozone levels are depleted, the atmosphere loses more and more of its protective filter function and more solar UV radiation reaches the Earth's surface. It is estimated that a 10 per cent decrease in ozone levels will result in an additional 300,000 non-melanoma and 4,500 melanoma skin cancer cases. The global incidence of melanoma continues to increase – however, the main factors that predispose to the development of melanoma seem to be connected with recreational exposure to the sun and a history of sunburn.

2. What causes skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. It is estimated that they are 100,000 new cases each year (Source: Cancer Research UK). Skin cancer is forecast to double in the next 10 to 20 years.

There are two main groups of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. For more information please refer to 'What is Melanoma?' Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. Energy from the sun actually is a form of radiation. It consists of visible light and other rays that people can't see. Invisible infrared radiation, for instance, makes sunlight feel hot. UV also is invisible, and causes sunburn and sun tan.

Two kinds of rays exist in ultraviolet radiation:

  • Ultraviolet A (UVA)
  • Ultraviolet B (UVB)

That's why it is important to use a sunscreen product that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

3. Can sun beds cause skin cancer?

As mentioned above UVB is known to cause sunburn and skin cancer, so most sun beds were originally designed to produce UVA only. However, more recent research has found that UVA can also cause skin cancers. As a result, many modern sun beds produce far less UVA, although others still produce very high levels.

4. What is melanoma?

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. It starts as a mole and those with unusually shaped or larger moles are at higher risk. Detected early, melanoma is easily treated. In the UK, twice as many people with melanoma will die of the disease compared to Australia due to late detection.

Non-melanoma skin cancers

Non-melanoma skin cancers are the most commonest and comprise of basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. These are rarely lethal but surgical treatment is painful and often disfiguring. The temporal trends of the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers are difficult to determine, because reliable registration of these cancers has not been achieved. However, specific studies carried out in Australia, Canada and the United States, indicate that between the 1960s and the 1980s the prevalence of non-melanoma skin cancers increased by a factor of more than two.

The risk of non-melanoma skin cancers has been examined with respect to personal exposure, and the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Non-melanoma skin cancers are most frequent on parts of the body that are commonly exposed to the sun such as ears, face, neck and forearms. This implies that long-term, repeated UV radiation exposure is a major causal factor.
  • Within some countries there is a clear relationship between increasing incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers with decreasing latitude, i.e. higher UV radiation levels.

Malignant melanoma

Malignant melanoma, although far less prevalent than non-melanoma skin cancers, is the major cause of death from skin cancer and is more likely to be reported and accurately diagnosed than non-melanoma skin cancers.

A large number of studies indicate that the risk of malignant melanoma correlates with genetic and personal characteristics, and a person's UV exposure behaviour. The following is a summary of the main human risk factors: Malignant Melanoma
  • A large number of atypical nevi (moles) is the strongest risk factor for malignant melanoma in fair-skinned populations.
  • Malignant melanoma is more common among people with a pale complexion, blue eyes, and red or fair hair. Experimental studies have demonstrated a lower minimum erythema dose and more prolonged erythema in melanoma patients than in controls.
  • High, intermittent exposure to solar UV appears to be a significant risk factor for the development of malignant melanoma.
  • The incidence of malignant melanoma in white populations generally increases with decreasing latitude, with the highest recorded incidence occurring in Australia, where the annual rates are 10 and over 20 times the rates in Europe for women and men respectively.
  • Several epidemiological studies support a positive association with history of sunburn, particularly sunburn at an early age.
  • The role of cumulative sun exposure in the development of malignant melanoma is equivocal. However, malignant melanoma risk is higher in people with a history of non-melanoma skin cancers and of solar keratoses, both of which are indicators of cumulative UV exposure.

5. How common is melanoma?

Melanoma is now the most common cancer in young adults and rates are doubling every 10 to 20 years. The incident rate for melanoma is higher for women, but more men die from the disease due to late detection. Incidence rates in affluent areas are double those in deprived areas, although survival rates are higher in affluent areas due to earlier detection.

6. What does melanoma look like?

The majority of melanomas occur on the head, neck, arms and back - ie the skin exposed most to sunlight. Most of them are very dark or black, but they can sometimes be lighter brown or even speckled. The surface is usually raised and sometimes rough. They are not normally circular in shape, but some can be quite close to a circle. In their early stages, they often look like a mole, but with a ragged outline or different shades of colour in it. Sometimes, they appear to be a mole that is bleeding, oozing or crusty. However, the most important thing is that melanomas usually change shape or colour as they grow.

Early diagnosis is absolutely crucial for malignant melanoma as treatments for advanced melanoma are rarely effective. However, for other types of skin cancer, early diagnosis is sensible, but not a matter of life or death.

7. Who is most at risk of melanoma?

People with light skin are 3 times more likely to get melanoma and anyone with a history of sunburn or sunbed use is also at increased risk. Due to a relative lack of skin pigmentation people with light skin generally have a much higher risk of getting non-melanoma or melanoma skin cancers than dark-skinned populations. Naturally brown and black people can usually safely tolerate relatively high levels of sun exposure without getting sunburnt or greatly increasing their skin cancer risk.

In contrast, people with pale or freckled skin, fair or red hair and blue eyes belong to the highest risk group; people with dark hair and eyes who do not normally get sunburnt are at medium risk of developing skin cancer.

Some individual risk factors for skin cancer

  • fair skin
  • blue, green or hazel eyes
  • light-coloured hair
  • tendency to burn rather than suntan
  • history of severe sunburns
  • many moles
  • freckles
  • a family history of skin cancer

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