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Health: Skin cancer: know what to look for

May 20, 2008
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Skin cancer is now the fastest rising cancer in the UK with 75,000 new cases every year – and 2,300 deaths. We asked British Skin Foundation dermatologist Dr Emma Edmonds what you should watch out for…


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.


"They're usually dark patches with uneven edges," says Dr Edmonds. "They generally look nasty, as if there's something wrong. 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."


The second category is the non-melanomas. They're split into basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. "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. 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."


"In order to reduce the risk of skin cancer, make sunscreen – 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 then, it's also 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."

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