Yinka Ebo: Telltale skin cancer signs can’t be ignored

Cheap package holidays and year-round tans were not a part of everyday life growing up in Scotland in the fifties and sixties.

But for a generation of Scots that has is now the norm and we are only just starting to seem some of the impact of that lifestyle change.

The latest figures have shown a dramatic rise in the number of people in their fifties in Scotland developing malignant melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer.

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Over the last 30 years rates have tripled in this age group, with around four people in their fifties now diagnosed in Scotland every week. And although these figures don’t tell us the reason for this dramatic increase, it’s likely that a change in the culture of tanning several decades ago could be involved. For example, the explosion of cheap package holidays and the introduction of sunbeds in the seventies could have played a role. Melanoma, like many cancers, can take years or decades to develop, so the increased rates of melanoma we’re seeing now are a likely to be a reflection of past behaviour.

It’s worrying to see such a stark rise in melanoma rates, but there are two important things worth remembering. Firstly, melanoma is a largely preventable disease and people can reduce their risk of developing skin cancer by protecting themselves from sunburn. Sunburn is a clear sign that ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or sunbeds has damaged the genetic material – DNA – in your skin cells. Damaged DNA can cause cells to start growing out of control. This can lead to skin cancer. Getting a painful 
sunburn just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma.

Most cases of skin cancer are caused by overexposure to UV rays from the sun or sunbeds. So people can reduce the risk of developing the disease by avoiding sunbeds and enjoying the sun safely, by spending time in the shade, covering up with clothes and applying at least factor 15 sunscreen generously and regularly to protect your skin when the sun is strong.

Secondly, if melanoma is caught at an early stage, treatment can be quick and very effective. That’s why Cancer Research UK and Tesco are working together through the charity of the year partnership, to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of skin cancer and how to prevent it. This month, Cancer Research UK leaflets about spotting skin cancer early and advice on reducing the risk of the disease are on display at all Tesco cafes and pharmacies throughout the UK.

As part of this partnership, Tesco are helping to fund 32 research projects on early diagnosis across the UK. One of these projects is being carried out by Professor Jonathan Rees and his team at Edinburgh University. Professor Rees aims to see whether providing more images of the early signs of skin cancer would give people a better idea of what skin cancer looks like and provide them with tools to help them spot the disease early and encourage them to see their doctor promptly.

It’s generally a good idea to get to know how your skin normally looks so you’ll be more likely to notice changes that may be signs of skin cancer. If you notice a change in the size, shape or colour of a mole or any change to a mole or normal patch of skin, it’s worth getting it checked out by a doctor, even if you don’t think it’s anything to worry about. It may well not be skin cancer, but if it is, getting it diagnosed and treated early could make a real difference to the outcome.

Yinka Ebo is a senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK

Drug branded too expensive

A SKIN cancer drug that can extend the lives of sufferers for up to five years was rejected by health chiefs in May for being too expensive.

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Trials of the drug – Ipilimumab – found that half of those who took it were still alive a year later, which was twice as many as those given an alternative treatment.

Ipilimumab works by teaching the immune system to tackle melanomas and costs £45,000 per patient.

Despite the successful trial, the Scottish Medicines Consortium issued guidance that the drug should not be made available, insisting that the “justification of the treatment’s cost in relation to its health benefits was not sufficient”.

While the drug is not available in England either, Ipilimumab can be applied for through the Cancer Drugs Fund, which does not cover Scotland.