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Deadly skin cancer set to treble

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by Cancer Research UK | News

23 March 2005

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Children could be three times more likely than their grandparents to get malignant melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – unless the trend to sunbathe recklessly is reversed.

In a stark warning to Britain’s sun worshippers Professor Brian Diffey launched this year’s Cancer Research UK SunSmart campaign by predicting that melanoma rates are on course to treble in the next 30 years.

And he revealed figures that show how the incidence of melanoma is rising sharply in younger as well as older people.

Abiding by the SunSmart* messages would lower the toll, he said. But incidence rates were still set to double in the next 30 years as a result of how much sun exposure people have had in the past. And he emphasised that early detection is the key to bringing down mortality rates.

More than 7,300 cases of malignant melanoma are diagnosed each year in the UK and more than 1,700 people die from the disease. Prof Diffey’s work has shown that melanoma is attacking younger people more often as each decade passes.

“It’s essential that people monitor their moles and skin blemishes and report any changes in them,” said Prof Diffey, sun protection specialist and adviser to Cancer Research UK. “Acting promptly can save lives and early detection and treatment will give many melanoma patients an excellent prognosis.”

The risk of melanoma, as with the majority of cancers, increases with age. But a recent study led by Prof Diffey, based at Newcastle General Hospital. showed that it is increasingly being diagnosed in people of all ages.

Men and women born in 1970 – now in their mid-30s – are being diagnosed with melanoma at the same rate as people who were born in 1930 and didn’t develop melanoma until their 50s.

Cancer Research UK dermatologist Dr Catherine Harwood says: “It’s vitally important that melanoma is detected and treated early. The best advice we can give people is to keep an eye on moles and any unusual skin blemishes. If existing moles start to change they should always be checked by a doctor.

“Signs to watch out for include a mole getting bigger, a mole with a ragged outline or one with a mixture of different shades of brown and black. If a mole gets inflamed or starts to bleed or itch, then get it checked out. But it’s also important to remember that any of these signs don’t necessarily mean you have melanoma.”

This year the SunSmart campaign will target tan-loving 16-24 year olds warning that sunburn can double their risk of skin cancer. And a web-based game has been designed to highlight the SunSmart message.

All schools will be offered free posters, lesson plans and activity sheets based on the SunSmart messages as well as the chance to enter a competition to win shade structures. All UK health professionals will be sent posters giving a guide to suspect moles and lesions – along with postcards and posters to help patients become SunSmart.

Professor Robert Souhami, Executive Director of Policy and Communications at Cancer Research UK, says: “One of the important messages in Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign, launched earlier this year, is to persuade people – especially youngsters and those with fair skins – to avoid excess sun exposure and burning.

“We know that half of all cases of cancer can be prevented by making lifestyle changes. We’re seeing more and more people giving up smoking to lessen their chances of getting a whole range of cancers. Reducing the risk of skin cancer is something most of us can do by following the SunSmart code.”

The SunSmart Code*

  • Stay in the shade between 11am-3pm
  • Make sure you never burn
  • Always cover up with a T shirt, wide brimmed hat and sunglasses
  • Remember to take extra care with children
  • Then use factor 15 plus sunscreen.

Also report any mole changes or unusual skin growths promptly to your GP. For more information visit: SunSmart.