The rise of Skin Cancer- time to take the sun seriously!

The rise of Skin Cancer- time to take the sun seriously!

Now that the sun has finally arrived it is time to enjoy it. But enjoy it safely! Remember, the sun is one the most serious carcinogens we are exposed to. Getting sunburned is the equivalent of going out and smoking about 20 cigarettes!

Don’t believe me?! Let’s look at the facts.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland amongst both men and women with just over 8000 cases diagnosed every year! 9 out of 10 cases are caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays and therefore it needs to be taken seriously in order to maximise your chances of longterm health. If you exercise well, eat a balanced diet, look after your mind and get regular check-ups why jeopardise all that good work by underestimating your sun exposure risk!

Everyone who spends time outdoors is particularly at risk, not just sunbathers. Golfers, walkers, farmers and labourers are commonly seen in Dermatology clinic waiting rooms!

There are two main types of skin cancer- melanoma and non melanoma skin cancer.

Melanoma is very dangerous. It is the skin cancer that generally arises from moles. The number of cases of melanoma rises by about 7% every year and doubles every decade. It affects females twice as commonly as males. In men, the most common site for melanoma is the back; in females it is the lower leg (almost half occur here).

Probably the single largest risk factor for melanoma is the number of common moles. People with more than 50 moles on their body are at a much higher risk of developing a malignant melanoma than those with 10 or less.

On top of this, people who burn easily in the sun are at a much higher risk for developing melanoma than people with darker skin. Intermittent “bad” sunburns (including sunbed use- which should be banned) rather than cumulative mild exposures are an important factor in the development of melanoma; the risk increases sharply if these bad burns are sustained in childhood.

Any change in any mole needs urgent attention be it a change in colour size or shape. Look out for the “ugly duckling” mole ie the mole that is distinctly different from all your other moles. A quick check up may all be that’s needed to provide reassurance. But thankfully, if it is a melanoma, like most cancer, if caught early, it is easily fixable.

The other type of skin cancers are non-melanoma skin cancers. They don’t originate from moles. They are very common but generally benign. Look out for a new sore or scab that does not heal in a few weeks. These type of skin cancers tend to be related to your overall, cumulative sun exposure.

So how do you reduce your risk of both types of skin cancer? Keep in mind the following;

– UVB peaks between the hours of 11am and 3pm, especially from May to September. So, try to plan activities for the early morning or late afternoon

-Seek the shade and wear protective clothing including wide brimmed hats (men may perceive that these hats look silly but just imagine yourself missing half of your ear due to skin cancer!)

– Wear wraparound glasses and make sure they have UV protection (it is possible to get melanoma in your eyes)

– Up to 90% of UV rays can pass through the light clouds making it imperative you take preventive action on these days too
-Swimming offers little protection as UV can penetrate the water surface

– Babies and small children are extremely vulnerable. All children whether they tan easily or not should always be protected. A tan is damaged skin and is a sign that skin is trying to protect itself from more damage by UV rays. A tan or sunburn may go away but the damage to your skin is permanent!

The use of sunscreens is ONLY complementary to the above! Sunscreens should be applied to prevent excessive sun exposure rather than prolong it!

Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that will filter both UVA and UVB rays, preferably one containing titanium dioxide which is less likely to cause irritation to sensitive skin. The sun protection factor (SPF) is about UVB protection. The higher the SPF the better but choose one with an SPF of at least 30. Apply it every 2-3 hours.

Remember, it is our attitude towards the sun that puts us all at risk. We think, that living in cloudy Ireland, makes us safe- completely wrong!

The “Sun Smart” campaign aims to change our attitude- its theme of SLIP! SLOP! SLAP! (slip on a shirt, slop on a sunscreen and slap on a hat) should become a mantra in all of our homes this Summer!