Skin experts warn sun lovers – tan now, cancer later

23rd May 2009


BAPRAS and the British Association of Dermatologists stress the importance of early diagnosis in successfully treating skin cancer and minimising scarring as research reveals one in ten of us would delay getting a mole checked, believing it too trivial to consult our GP

With holiday season fast approaching, new research from the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS) has found that 28% of 18-24 year olds say the risk of skin cancer won’t make them spend less time sunbathing this summer.  Of these, 43% said this was because the threat of skin cancer didn’t occur to them, while 19% didn’t realise they were at risk of developing it.

Skin cancer is on the rise. An estimated 2002 new cases are diagnosed in the UK each day.  Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is also increasing particularly within younger age groups. In fact the potentially fatal melanoma is thought to be the second most common cancer for those aged 20 to 402. Fifty women under the age of 40 die from melanoma each year.

In spite of this, nearly one fifth of British adults aren’t going to change their sunbathing habits. Thirty per cent of people said this was because skin cancer didn’t cross their minds when soaking up the rays. 

Barry Powell, member of BAPRAS and National Clinical Advisor in Skin Cancer, says:  “We are seeing an increasing incidence of melanoma in younger people, so the fact that skin cancer isn’t being taken seriously is extremely worrying. A high number of adults still don’t understand the risks, particularly those in the younger age groups. Many think that only older people can die from skin cancer but I have seen heartbreaking cases of patients in their twenties, who are just starting out in life, die because they have left it too late. 

“Holiday tans often start to fade on the flight or journey home. In contrast, skin cancer can be deadly, and potentially leave permanent scarring on the body.  You don’t have to avoid the sun altogether but people should be sensible and avoid getting burnt.”

The research also looked at attitudes towards detection of skin cancer.  It was found that 32% of people would have reasons to delay getting a mole or mark on their body checked. Primarily this was because they wouldn’t want to bother their GP with something they believed to be trivial (14%). Interestingly, fear was also a factor with more than one in ten citing that anxiety over finding out it was cancerous would delay them from going to the doctor.   

Other barriers were: - believing they had to pay to have it checked (7%); being too busy (6%); not thinking to have it checked (4%); or not knowing where to go for help (2%).
Those in the younger age bands had the most complacent attitudes, with 16% of 18-24 saying they would be too busy to get a mole checked and one in ten saying getting it looked at wouldn’t even occur to them.

When asked how long they would wait before consulting a doctor, one in ten people said they would wait up to a three months before seeking professional advice, while 4% would wait more than six. More concerning is that an additional 4%, the equivalent of nearly two million people, said they wouldn’t get it checked out at all.

Dr Mark Goodfield, President of the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD), said: “Although it may seem trivial, it is vital to see your GP immediately if you see signs of a mole changing shape, colour or texture.   If your GP has any concerns, you will be referred to a specialist - likely to be a dermatologist or plastic surgeon.  Diagnosing a skin cancer early makes a real difference to the success of treatment and your chances of survival.  Making an extra effort to check changes in moles and going to the GP could save your life.”

Without early diagnosis, melanoma can spread through the lymph system or the blood stream which can be very serious and in some cases fatal. At the start, a melanoma is thin and lies on the surface of the skin and can be easily removed. However, if it's left to become thick, it grows down into the skin and spreads. As the tumour thickens, surgery becomes more complex. Scars may be longer and skin grafts or skin flaps may have to be used to cover the gaps from the growth removed during surgery.

Barry Powell continues: “We have witnessed a huge rise in the number of skin cancer treatments that we are performing. A high proportion of UK plastic surgeons’ non-emergency work-load is now spent treating and reconstructing patients with skin cancer.  Surgical removal of melanoma is the best form of treatment and can cure the problem completely, providing it is caught early, before it has had time to spread.  Therefore, early diagnosis is key to survival.”

BAPRAS and BAD are concerned that people don’t fully understand the dangers and long term health risks associated with skin cancer. They are encouraging medical professionals to work more closely to help combat the rise in skin cancers.

Skin cancer statistics

•  Around 100,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed every year, 9,000 of these are melanoma (British Association of Dermatologists).
•  Non-melanoma skin cancers - include squamous cell carcinoma which is still potentially fatal, accounting for around 500 deaths every year.
•  According to a recent Sun Awareness survey by the British Association of Dermatologists, one in seven people who use sunscreen use a low protection product of below SPF 15.  
•  Only one in four people use a high protection sunscreen of SPF 30 or above which is the minimum protection recommended by the British Association of Dermatologists.
•  The annual incidence of melanoma worldwide is increasing faster than that of any other cancer.
•  Incidence rates of melanoma skin cancer have quadrupled since the 1970s, with around 2,000 people a year dying from it.
•  Almost half of all people who die from malignant melanoma are younger than 70.
•  Melanomas are more common in women than men, but there is a faster rate of increase in men and more men die from the disease, possibly due to late detection.
•  The UK death rate from skin cancer is in fact one and a half times that of Australia.


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