Meet our expert: Dr Bav Shergill is a Consultant Dermatologist and a Trustee of the British Skin Foundation (www.britishskinfoundation.org.uk)
Knowing how to protect yourself from skin cancer is important at any age, but especially as you get older. Malignant melanoma – the most serious kind of skin cancer – is now the fifth most common cause of cancer in the UK and it’s on the rise in people over 65.
The latest figures from Cancer Research UK show that 5,700 people over 65 are now diagnosed with melanoma each year, compared to just 700 in the mid-Seventies – a rise the cancer charity puts down to the ‘boom’ in cheap package holidays back in the Sixties through to the Eighties.
While your past sunbathing habits can put you at a higher risk of skin cancer, the good news is that there are still ways you can protect yourself today, including knowing how to spot the signs of melanoma early.
What is malignant melanoma?
“There are a few different types of skin cancer, but they’re all caused by UV light from the sun damaging the DNA in our skin cells,” says Dr Shergill.
“This can cause the cells to grow unnaturally, sometimes years after the sun damage. Malignant melanoma is the least common but the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It usually appears in or near a mole and can spread to other parts of your body if it’s not treated early.”
Am I at risk?
Anyone can get skin cancer at any age, but there are a few factors that increase your risk:
- Spending a lot of time in the sun or on sunbeds
- If a parent or a sibling has had skin cancer
- If you have fair hair, freckles or pale skin that burns easily
- If you have a lot of moles already, especially large or unusually-shaped moles
- You’ve worked outdoors a lot, for example as a gardener, builder or PE teacher
Spot the signs
“Most skin cancers are easily treated if spotted early. So it’s really important to check your skin for any signs about once a month,” says Dr Shergill. “Examine the skin all over your body and ask a friend or partner to check the bits you can’t see, such as your scalp, ears and back. Look out for any moles or patches of skin that are getting bigger, changing shape or colour, starting to bleed or feel particularly itchy, crusty or sore.
If you spot any signs, see your GP.
Do the ABCDE test
This simple checklist is a good way to tell the difference between a normal mole and what could be melanoma:
Asymmetrical – Does one half of your mole look different to the other?
Border – Are the edges of your mole jagged or uneven?
Colours – Is your mole a mixture of two colours?
Diameter – Is your mole bigger than 6mm in diameter?
Evolution – Has your mole changed over time, perhaps in shape or colour or suddenly started to ooze, itch or hurt?
If you have several of these symptoms, see your GP
Stay safe in the sun
Looking after yourself in the sunshine is the easiest way to reduce your risk of skin cancer. Just follow these tips:
- Stock up on sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or more and that also blocks harmful UVA rays – look for a five-star rating on the back of the bottle. Apply sunscreen 15-30 mins before you head outdoors to give it time to absorb. And top it up after two hours or right after swimming, even if your sunscreen says it’s waterproof. Sunscreens usually have a shelf life of 2-3 years so don’t be tempted to use the bottle that’s been at the back of your shelf for years.
- Don’t forget your hat – find one that covers your face, neck and ears
- Cover up with a T-shirt and wear good quality, wraparound sunglasses that give 100 per cent UV protection
- Learn to love the shade between 11am and 3pm
- Stay away from sunbeds. If you want to look brown before you go your hols, use fake tan products instead, which are much safer
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