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Deadly skin cancer rates soar for generation of baby boomers

The Cancer Research UK logo
by Cancer Research UK | News

1 April 2010

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People in their 60s and 70s are now over five times more likely to be diagnosed with malignant melanoma – the deadliest type of skin cancer – than their parents would have been 30 years ago, reveal new Cancer Research UK statistics1 to launch the 2010 SunSmart campaign today (Thursday).

Of all ages, this generation has seen the biggest increase in incidence rates of melanoma, rising from seven cases per 100,000 people in the mid 1970s2 to 36 cases per 100,000 today3.

The stark rise shows the impact that a shift in tanning behaviour has had on a whole generation of men and women who would have been in their 20s and 30s during the dawn of cheap package holidays in the 1970s – when sunburn before suntan was a common ritual – and sunbeds arrived in the UK4.

For men in their 60s and 70s the rates of melanoma have risen most dramatically – they are now over seven times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease than in the 1970s.

Sue Deans, a 64 year old grandmother from Dorset, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma after discovering a lump in her lymph nodes. She had a mole removed a few years earlier but was shocked to be diagnosed with skin cancer. She had an operation to remove the tumour.

“I was famous for getting brown. When I was younger having a tan was seen to be very attractive and I would spend hours in the sun without any protection. My skin would burn and peel and I would pick off the skin after it had blistered. And then when I was in my early 20s I began going abroad on holiday and would spend most of my time sunbathing.

“I truly believe my skin cancer diagnosis was due to the sunburn I suffered as a child and teenager. If only we’d known at the time how dangerous getting burnt was and the effect it would have 30 to 40 years later. But we just weren’t aware of the risks and how important it was to be safe in the sun and not get burnt.

“There’s nothing clever about having a tan. I am now always careful not to burn by wearing sun screen and sitting in the shade. And my young grandson has very fair skin so I worry about him and make sure he is protected.”

The worrying rise in incidence rates is expected to continue. By 2024 rates in people aged 60-79 are predicted to increase by a third from where they are today 5.

For men and women of all ages melanoma incidence rates have quadrupled since the 1970s.

Caroline Cerny, SunSmart manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “A change in the culture of tanning including the explosion of cheap package holidays and the introduction of sunbeds in the seventies means we’re now seeing alarming rates of melanoma for an entire age group.

“The battle against melanoma is far from won. Today the problem threatens to get worse as teenagers continue to crave a tan on the beach and top it up cheaply on sunbeds. Already skin cancer is predicted to become the fourth most common cancer for men and for women in the UK by 2024. We must continue to try and stop this pattern of behaviour or melanoma rates in future generations will hit an all time high.

“Melanoma is largely preventable. Burning is not only painful and unsightly; it’s a clear sign that UV rays from the sun have damaged the DNA in your skin cells. This significantly increases the chance of developing skin cancer and makes skin look older. People with fair skin, freckles and lots of moles should take extra care in the sun. But everyone should avoid the temptation to redden or burn in order to get a tan.”

There has also been a large increase in the overall death rates. Over a similar period they have more than doubled from 1.2 per 100,000 in 1971 to 2.6 per 100,000 in the UK in 2007.

If melanoma death rates had stayed the same as they were in 1973, around 19,000 fewer people would have died from melanoma6.


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