Here comes the take precautions

May 2015

Now that summer is almost here, many of us will be packing for our holidays, preparing to spend relaxing days by the pool.

While many people look forward to topping up their tans all year round, 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.

Mr Marc Moncrieff, consultant plastic surgeon at Spire Norwich Hospital, explains: "Each year in the UK around 13,500 cases of melanoma are diagnosed. Melanoma, or a 'malignant mole', is one of the least common but most serious forms of skin cancer. It has the ability to spread to other parts of the body.

"Worryingly, according to figures released by Cancer Research UK, 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 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.

"The good news is melanoma can be treated and many patients may be cured if caught early. 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 itching or painful
  • moles that are bleeding."

For patients who’ve been diagnosed with a melanoma, consultant plastic surgeon Mr Marc Moncrieff advises: "Help is at hand with a test available to patients in Norfolk. The test, called a sentinel lymph node biopsy, is a targeted investigation, 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, 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 obligations 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 exposure to strong UV rays causing sunburn. 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 wear a high factor sunscreen, protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses. Children are at particular risk of getting sunburnt 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 increase a person's lifetime risk of developing a melanoma.

"Some people are concerned they won’t get enough vitamin D if they cover themselves up against the sun. Whilst it is true UV is used in the skin to make vitamin D, less than one hour’s exposure a week is required. If we are concerned about our patients becoming vitamin D deficient, we can now offer a routine check using a simple blood test. Usually, a dietary supplement is all that is required to correct any problems."

Marc spent two years of his specialist training in Sydney, Australia and advises: "They are much more vigilant about suncare out there. Children have to go to school with a sunhat on their heads and sunscreen in their rucksacks.

"Everyone on the beach wears special swimming costumes that completely block out ultraviolet light, even the adults. The good news is this approach seems to be working as 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 sun awareness arrange an appointment with your family doctor or call 01603 255 614 to make a private appointment with consultant plastic surgeon Mr Marc Moncrieff.

All surgery carries an element of risk and the content of this page is provided for general information only.  It should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other healthcare professional.

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