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Skin Cancer. Incidence, Causes and Prevention

sunbathing, skin cancer, risk of cancer
Sunbathing increases your risk of skin cancer

Rates of skin cancer are increasing dramatically worldwide with cases in the UK having increased by 42% in the past ten years. In the US, it is thought that 1 in 5 people will develop a form of skin cancer by the time they are 70. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Australia, with two out of three people being diagnosed before age 70.

These figures are staggering, and personally they concern me greatly. But thankfully, there are things we can do to minimise our risks, and it’s never too late to take steps to decrease your chances of getting any form of cancer, but reducing your risks of skin cancer, can be done with some simple steps, which I will go through later.

What is skin cancer?

Simply, skin cancer occurs when damage to the skin cells triggers a mutation in those cells which rapidly grow, forming malignant tumours. Our skin is made up of layers, the upper layer called the epidermis, and the lower layer called the dermis. Skin cancer occurs in the upper layer, or epidermis. Within the epidermis, we have squamous-cells basal-cells and melanocytes.

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

  • Non-melanoma cancer includes basal-cell skin cancer or basal-cell carcinoma and squamous-cell skin cancer, or squamous-cell carcinoma.

  • Basal-cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer and mostly occurs on the head, face, neck and ears, as these are the area’s most commonly exposed to the sun.

  • Squamous-cell carcinoma develops in the layer of skin just above the basal layer and is also most commonly found in areas most exposed to the sun.

  • Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that develops deep in the epidermis (our outer layer of skin) Melanocytes are the cells that create the pigment (colour) in our skin and help to protect us against UV light. For example, a mole is a cluster of melanocytes.

What causes skin cancer?

UV light is the cause of most types of skin cancer, whether from long-term sun exposure or shorter periods of sun exposure that cause burning, or through the use of sunbeds. Sun exposure as a child, particularly if the skin has been burnt, also dramatically increases your risk of skin cancer later in life.

Other factors may increase your risk of skin cancer also, such as;

  • The colour of your skin and hair. People who are fair and burn easily are at a higher risk.

  • A large amount of moles. These should be monitored regularly for changes. I take photos of mine to compare for any changes roughly every six months.

  • Birthmarks, should be monitored regularly for any changes

  • Age, the older you are the more chance you have of developing skin cancer.

  • Family history, although this seems to be mostly down to skin type running in families.

  • Other medical history, such as taking medications that reduce your immune system, some eczema treatments etc.

What are the symptoms of skin cancer?

  • A lesion or sore on the skin which doesn’t heal by itself within a few weeks

  • Unusual markings, pigment changes to the skin

  • Changes in shape, size, colour to moles/birthmarks/freckles

  • A sore, crusty, itchy, scabbed area of the skin which doesn’t heal.

  • A new lump

  • Red patches on the skin, which may or may not itch.

If you notice any of these changes, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your GP. I have personally already had two moles removed that looked concerning. They were whipped off in my local surgery with a bit of local anaesthetic in a quick and virtually painless appointment. Thankfully laboratory results came back clear.

moles, skin cancer, mole removal
My back is covered in moles. Can you spot the removal scar?

It is worth noting that the outlook for curing basal and squamous cell carcinomas is really good and deaths are thankfully quite rare. Unfortunately, melanoma is more dangerous and can spread to other parts of the body more quickly, which is why it is important to remain vigilant and see your GP if you are concerned.

How can I prevent skin cancer?

There are simple steps you can take that can drastically reduce your chances of a skin cancer diagnosis.

  • Wear a hat outside. I have a lot of hair, and even my scalp burns sometimes during the summer months, particularly where my hair parts.

  • Avoid the sun during the hottest periods of the day.

  • Do not think the cloud will protect you. Unfortunately cloud cover offers minimal protection against harmful UV rays

  • Wear a powerful sunscreen all year round. Even in winter we can be exposed to UV. Don’t forget to reapply often and remember those areas easy to forget such as the neck and tips of ears.

  • Clothing will provide more protection against UV rays than suncream, so it is best to remain covered.

  • Melanoma can develop in the eyes, wear sunglasses with good UVA and UVB protection.

  • Do not use tanning beds

  • Some medications can increase your sensitivity to the sun, so ensure you read the labels of any medications you do take and discuss with your GP if concerned.

  • If using retinol is part of your skin care regime, only apply it at night and cleanse your face thoroughly before sun exposure.

Remember, that when you skin changes colour after sun exposure, whether it is a tan or a burn, this is a sign of damage having been caused to the skin.

Like all things in life, we must practice a healthy balance. I think I have made it very clear that too much sunlight/UV exposure can be harmful, but it is important to keep in mind that too little can be damaging to our health also. Sunlight is also essential to our health. Our bodies cannot produce vitamin D without the sun, and vitamin D is essential for us to absorb calcium for overall bone health. Sun exposure is also beneficial for our mental health and can help prevent insomnia.

What does the sun and bread have in common?..

They both rise in the yeast

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