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Skin cancer: What are the risks?

With bursts of sunshine starting to break through the relentless spring showers, the world is gearing up for summer. For a lot of us, that means getting away for a few weeks, and enjoying the glorious sunshine that the warmer weather brings. Unfortunately, basking in the summer sunshine isn’t without its risks. With Skin Cancer Awareness Month in full swing, we are focusing on the dangers associated with the most common type of cancer in the UK, the facts, current research – and crucially, ways you can prevent it.

The Facts

There is more than one type of skin cancer, but the skin cancer caused by the sun’s harmful UV rays is known as “malignant melanoma.” In fact, exposure to sunlight is the main environmental cause of melanoma. It is for this reason that melanomas are more likely to develop in sun exposed areas, such as the shoulders, back, and arms.

How do you know if you are at risk of developing skin cancer?

Some factors can increase your risk, for example, if you spent a lot of time in the sun as a child without UV protection, then you are more likely to develop melanoma later in life. In addition, histories of severe sunburn, exposure to UV radiation, or intense intermittent UV exposure are all associated with a risk of melanoma, which is why sunbeds and other artificial exposure to UV-A radiation should be avoided.

Image Credit: ‘Relax, Sunshine, Holidays’ by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

There is also a genetic risk involved with melanoma. In fact, approximately 10% of cases will have a strong family history of melanoma. Darker moles, or benign pigmented naevi (to use the technical term), may be precursors and there is a general increased risk for individuals with these darker moles. Finally, your gender may mean an increased risk – in the UK, more women than men are diagnosed with malignant melanoma but death is more common in men.

Even when we know the facts, some self-proclaimed sun worshippers still put themselves at risk. Some don’t use sun screen, sunbathe at the height of the day, and take trips to the sunbed – all for the sake of that golden glow, made famous by the likes of bronzed beauties Jennifer Aniston and Gigi Hadid.


While curative treatment remains possible if melanoma is diagnosed early, prevention is always better than the cure. In a previous article, Ian Olver, author of The Cancer Prevention Manual, told us how we can avoid getting cancer, and, no surprises – taking precautions when in the sun was high on his list. In addition to avoiding the sun’s harmful rays, it is important to ensure you get checked and go for a screening, especially if you are at a high risk of developing skin cancer. As with other types of cancer, skin cancer can come back. In fact, up to 10% of patients diagnosed with melanoma will develop a second melanoma within five years of diagnosis.

You can also keep an eye out yourself, for any changes in your moles and marks  – following the simple “ABCDE” method:

Asymmetry—one half different to the other

Borders—uneven, blurred, or scalloped

Colour—variety in the shade or colour

Diameter—usually, but not exclusively, >6mm

Image Credit: ‘Malignant Melanoma’, author unknown. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Evolving—any change, sudden or continuous

Education, prevention, and further research

Initiatives to educate the public on skin cancer prevention have been wide and far reaching, the most well-known being the “slip, slop, slap” campaign, made famous by an Australian singing seagull from the 1980s. Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world and numbers are set to double, decade on decade. The Australian Cancer Council believes however, that its campaign played a key role in the dramatic shift in sun protection attitudes and behaviour over the past two decades.

Today, there are many alternative ways to get a suntan, rather than sunbathing and sunbeds. The increased popularity of the “fake bake”, and the wide range of products available, has encouraged people to use artificial tanning products in order to achieve that aforementioned “golden glow.”

In addition to education and prevention initiatives, cancer research is an ever evolving area, with new discoveries reported regularly. A promising new study, known as CheckMate, has found that a cocktail of drugs can eradicate traces of melanoma, even if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Though this combination of drugs has yet to be approved in the UK, these new findings are encouraging for oncologists and patients alike.

When you’re out in the sunshine this summer, remember to stay protected, and make sure you know the facts to reduce the risks.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Sand, Beach, Water’ by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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