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Skin cancer: how to spot the signs and protect yourself

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Make suncream your last line of defence against the rays after clothing, hats and the shade, and avoid the sun completely between the hours of 11am and 3pm 

21 APRIL 2009

At last the sun is here, but the temptation to make the most of the rays puts us all in danger. More than 2,300 people die from skin cancer in the UK each year – more than in Australia. We asked dermatologist Dr Emma Edmonds what to watch out for to help protect our bodies from this disfiguring and potentially deadly disease:

What are the different types of skin cancer?
Dermatologists divide skin cancer into two categories. The most deadly is malignant melanoma – the least common of the skin cancers generally, but, in the 20-39 age group, it's actually the most commonly diagnosed of all cancers. The second category is the non-melanomas and that's split into basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

What should you look for and where?
Malignant melanomas are usually dark patches with uneven edges. "They generally look nasty, as if there's something wrong," points out Dr Edmonds. "Sometimes they bleed or itch, but not always. There is another, more rare, type, called amelanotic melanoma, which is flesh coloured or pink and lumpy. Men tend to get melanomas on the back and women on the lower legs, but those areas are not exclusive."

"Basal cell is usually a slow-growing nodule with a pearly appearance you get on the face, maybe the chest or back," Dr Edmonds explains. "It rarely spreads and is more ulcerative and locally destructive – its nickname is rodent ulcer. If you get one, you're likely to get another. Squamous cell is usually crusty and found on extremities – on older men you see it on the tops of the head, the ears, the back of hands. That one does spread and can kill."

What can you do to reduce your risk?
"In order to reduce the risk of skin cancer, make suncream – SPF15 minimum – your last line of defence after clothing, hats and shade," Dr Edmonds advises. "Avoid the sun completely between 11am and 3pm because not only is it at its most powerful, it's directly above you in the sky so there's less ozone for the UV to get through than when it's at an angle during the rest of the day. And get straight to your doctor if you notice any changes in your skin, particularly, with moles, if they change in size, shape or colour."

For more information, visit info.cancerresearchuk.org




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