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Melanoma diagnoses hit 10,000 a year for over 55s

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by Cancer Research UK | News

1 July 2016

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A melanoma cancer cell.

For the first time in the UK, more than 10,000* people aged 55 and over were diagnosed with malignant melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer – in a single year, according to the latest figures released by Cancer Research UK today (Friday). This compares with around 3,100 cases diagnosed in the UK 20 years ago.

“The best way to protect skin when the sun is strong is to spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm, and to cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses.”Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK

Rates of melanoma in people aged 55 and over have more than doubled (155 per cent) in the last 20 years. Rates in the UK for under 55s are also rising but at a much slower rate of 63 per cent during the same time**.

A growing UK population with people living longer means the numbers of people being diagnosed with melanoma continue to climb.  The increase in over 55s being diagnosed is likely to be linked to the ‘sun, sea and sangria’ generation who benefited from the cheap package holiday boom dating from the 1960s, and the desire to have tanned skin even at the expense of sunburn.

Melanoma is the fifth most common type of cancer in the UK***. For all age groups around 15,400 people across the UK are diagnosed with melanoma each year compared with 5,600 two decades ago – an increase in rates of – 120 per cent since the mid-nineties.

The number of people dying from the disease is also increasing. For the first time around 2,000 aged 55 and over die from melanoma in 2014 in the UK****.

Despite the increase in diagnosis and deaths the number of people surviving their disease is also increasing. Today nine in 10 people diagnosed with malignant melanoma in England and Wales will survive their disease for at least 10 years compared to seven in 10 in the early nineties.

Sue Deans is a retired teacher and mother of three and was first diagnosed in 2000 with malignant melanoma after the doctor removed a mole. She was re-diagnosed in 2007 after she discovered a lump under her armpit.

She said: “I was part of the generation where package holidays became affordable and people were starting to go nearly every year. I loved being out in the sun, working on my tan but did get sunburnt quite a bit over the years. I don’t think people understood at the time the impact that too much sun can have on your risk of getting skin cancer.

“Luckily, my cancer was spotted early. I had successful surgery and have been healthy ever since but I do always keep a close eye out for anything unusual that might need to be checked. And I’m so careful when it comes to my grandson. I make sure he covers up and wears lots of sunscreen in the summer.”

Getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple your risk of developing malignant melanoma. Sunburn isn’t only raw or blistered skin, any pink- or reddening of the skin is a sign of damage.

Nick Ormiston-Smith, Cancer Research UK’s head of statistics, said: “Getting sunburnt doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely develop melanoma but it does increase your chances of developing the disease. It’s worrying to see that malignant melanoma rates are continuing to rise and it’s very important that people take care of their skin in strong sun, even if they’ve been sunburnt in the past.”

Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health and patient information, said: “We all need some sun for vitamin D, but enjoying the sun safely and avoiding sunburn can reduce your risk of malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. The best way to protect skin when the sun is strong is to spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm, and to cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses. 

“Sunscreen can help protect the parts you can’t cover – use one with at least SPF 15 and 4 or more stars, put plenty on and reapply it regularly. But it’s best not to rely on sunscreen alone – use a combination of things to help protect your skin whenever possible. And never use sunscreen to stay in the sun for longer.”


For media enquiries please contact Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.