Safe Fun in the Sun

Now that summer is approaching, many of us will be looking forward to holidays in the sun and days spent relaxing by the pool. Many people look forward to topping up their tans all year round. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the golden tan which may make us feel healthy - is putting us in serious danger from the sun's harmful rays.

Each year in the UK around 9,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed. Melanoma, or a 'malignant mole', is one of the least common but most serious forms of skin cancer because it has the ability to spread to other parts of the body and can ultimately be fatal. Worryingly, according to the latest figures released by Cancer Research UK (www.cancerresearchUK/org) more young patients are being diagnosed with a melanoma. Indeed, it is now the most common cancer of women under 30, overtaking breast and cervical cancer. Currently in the UK, one woman in their 20s is diagnosed with a melanoma every day. Many experts believe that binge tanning, either by excessive sunbathing during a holiday or, by the extensive use and widespread availability of sunbeds, is the major cause of this alarming rise. The major problem with sunbeds is that they produce ultraviolet (UV) light that can be several times stronger than the sun, it is damage to the skin by UV light that is the major cause of developing a melanoma. Many countries are either considering or have actually banned the use of sunbeds for people under the age of 18.

The good news is that melanoma can be easily treated and many patients can be cured if it is caught early enough. Any new moles or existing moles that are changing should be shown to your GP. Changes to look for include:

  • moles that are getting bigger
  • moles that are changing shape
  • moles that are changing colour (particularly if they are getting blacker or have blue/purple hue to them)
  • moles that are wider than 6mm (a simple test is to see whether the mole can be covered by the blunt end of a pencil)
  • moles that are itchy or painful
  • moles that are bleeding

If you are unlucky enough to be diagnosed with a melanoma then Marc Moncrieff advises, "help is at hand with a new test that has recently become available to patients in Norfolk. We are very proud that we are the first skin cancer service in the East of England to be able to offer this test".  The test is a targeted lymph node biopsy which is able to detect at a very early stage whether the melanoma has spread to the neighbouring lymph glands. If the test comes back as negative then it tells the doctor and the patient that the melanoma is highly likely to be well-behaved and not spread to other areas of the body. "This is crucial information for patients, particularly as many of them have young families, a career and large financial obligation such as mortgages. If the test comes back as positive then we are able to offer further surgery to these patients to treat the affected lymph glands. This offers the best chance of dealing with the melanoma before it can spread any further because it has been caught at a very early, microscopic stage".

As with all cancers, prevention is much better than cure.  The main risk factor for melanoma is ultraviolet light from the sun. Try and shelter from the sun at its strongest, which is between 11am and 3pm in the summer months. If you are outdoors at this time then Marc suggests wearing a high factor sunscreen, protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses. Children are at particular risk of getting sun-burnt as their skin is far more delicate and prone to the dangerous effects of sun exposure. In fact, just three sunburns before the age of 18 years dramatically increases a person's lifetime risk of developing a melanoma.

Marc recently came back to England following a two-year sabbatical in Sydney, Australia. "They are much more vigilant about suncare out there. My children always had to go to school with a sunhat on their heads and sunscreen in their rucksacks. When they went to the beach they wore special swimming costumes that completely blocked out ultraviolet light but they didn't feel out of place because everyone had them, even the adults. The good news is that this approach seems to be working - in Australia there has been a steady fall in the number of cases of melanoma in the under 40s. Let's hope we can start to reduce the alarming rise in melanoma in the UK, too".

So remember, if you see any new moles or, moles that are changing then ask your doctor to have a look. Your doctor will refer you to a specialist if a melanoma is suspected.

For further information regarding Consultant Plastic Surgeon, Mr Marc Moncrieff please visit his consultant profile by clicking on this link.


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