Skin Cancer Facts

Are you at risk?
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Skin cancer is caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from sunlight and sun beds.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. It is estimated that there 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.

Melanoma is the least common skin cancer but it is potentially the most serious: there are over 8,000 new cases each year in the UK and 1,800 deaths. More people now die of Melanoma in the UK than in Australia. It is the second most common cancer in the young population (20 - 39 age group). It is estimated that approximately 85% of cases are caused by too much sun.

Non-melanoma skin cancers are the commonest skin cancers. The majority of these are called Basal Cell Carcinomas. These are usually localised growths caused by excessive cumulative exposure to the sun and do not tend to spread. In contrast, Squamous Cell Carcinomas, which also occur on the skin, do have a propensity to spread to other parts of the body.

Skin Cancer Warning Signs

It is important to check your skin regularly. If you are concerned in any way about skin cancer, speak to your family GP. Some of the key warning signs include:

  •  If a mole is getting bigger (or) has just appeared

  •  If the colours are mixed (brown and black)

  •  If the mole is large (bigger than the blunt end of a pencil)

  •  If a mole is inflamed, bleeding, oozing, crusting, itches or feels painful.

Are you at risk?

Some of the key risk factors include:

  •  fair skin that burns in strong sun

  •  red or fair hair

  •  lots of moles or freckles

  •  a personal or family history of skin cancer

Skin Cancer: Your Questions Answered

Skin cancer symptoms can sometimes be easily overlooked. Much is written about the disease, but just how much do you know?

Here we answer some of the key questions relating to symptoms, causes, detection and treatment of skin cancer.

How common is skin cancer?

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

What are the symptoms of melanomas?

How dangerous are skin cancers?

Does skin cancer run in families?

What causes skin cancer?

Can sun beds cause skin cancer?

Does sun cream protect against skin cancer?

Is early diagnosis important?

How is skin cancer treated?

How effective are skin cancer treatments?


Q. How common is skin cancer?

A. The British Association of Dermatologists estimate that there are at least 100,000 new cases of skin cancer each year, more than the annual number of new cases of breast cancer and lung cancer combined. The incidence of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, has more than trebled in the 20–25 age group in the last 25 years, and it is the third most common form of cancer among 15-39 year-olds, after Hodgkins, Lymphoma and testicular cancer. While malignant melanoma makes up only 10% of all skin cancers diagnosed, it accounts for 80% of deaths. However, if melanoma is diagnosed early, survival rates are high.

Q. What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

A. For all types of skin cancer, over-exposure to ultraviolet light from sunlight or sun beds is the main risk. Research into malignant melanoma suggests that over-exposure in childhood puts people at risk of getting melanomas later in life. There are several other things that increase the risk of skin cancer: having very fair skin that burns easily; having lots of moles (over 50) on your body; having had skin cancer before; having close relatives who have had skin cancer and being treated with anti-rejection drugs (i.e. after an organ transplant). Exposure to radiation or long-term exposure to chemicals such as coal tar, soot, pitch, asphalt, creosote, paraffin wax or arsenic can increase your risk of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Q. What are the symptoms of melanomas - what do they look like?

A. 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. Any spot that changes colour or shape should be reported to your doctor.

Q. How dangerous are skin cancers?

A. Malignant melanoma can be one of the most dangerous types of cancer. They all spread into nearby tissues, but some grow faster and spread further than others. If diagnosed late, treatment is not usually able to cure the cancer.

Q. Does skin cancer run in families?

A. There are some rare inherited skin diseases that make people highly sensitive to sunlight and much more likely to get any type of skin cancer. People inherit their normal skin type and skin cancer is more common in paler, freckly skin. In addition, there is good evidence that, if you have a close relative (brother, sister, parent or child) with skin cancer, you have about twice the normal risk of getting that type of skin cancer.

Q. What causes skin cancer?

A. Ultraviolet light - from sunlight or sun beds - is the main cause of skin cancer. It can damage the DNA that makes up the genes in skin cells. The wrong type of damage to the wrong genes will make a cell become cancerous. There are three types of UV light, called A, B and C. UVC is filtered out by the atmosphere and does not get to our skin. UVB was originally found to cause sunburn and skin cancer, but more recently, it has been discovered that UVA can also cause skin cancer.

Q. Can sun beds cause skin cancer?

A. 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.

Q. Does sun cream protect against skin cancer?

A. UVB is known to cause sunburn and skin cancer, so sun creams were originally designed to block out only the UVB. We now know that UVA can also cause skin cancer and, these days, some sun creams block out a lot of UVA as well as UVB. However, the main concern is that, because sun creams prevent burning, they make people think they can spend much longer in the sun, which will definitely increase their risk of getting skin cancer.

Q. Is early diagnosis important?

A. Early diagnosis is absolutely crucial for malignant melanoma (see above) 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.

Q. How is skin cancer treated?

A. For almost all non-melanoma skin cancers and for early melanomas, surgery to remove the cancer and a small amount of surrounding tissue is all that is necessary. If a melanoma has spread, chemotherapy can be used, but it is not usually effective. After a melanoma has spread, surgery and radiotherapy can be used on the secondary tumours. This will prolong life but it is not a cure.

Q. How effective are skin cancer treatments?

A. Surgical treatment of non-melanoma skin cancer is usually completely effective. For melanomas, if the tumour can be removed surgically before it has spread, the treatment is usually very effective. By removing more tissue around the tumour (the margin), the surgeon is more likely to remove the beginning of any spread and increase the chance of a cure. Once a melanoma has spread around the body, treatment is usually aimed at prolonging life as the chance of a cure is very small.

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