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Cheap holidays 'increased' melanoma rates

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“Skin cancer rates ‘surge since 1970s’,” reports the BBC.

The news is based on a press release from Cancer Research UK after the release of new figures for the number of people diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. The statistics show that the number of people being diagnosed with malignant melanoma is five times higher than it was 40 years ago.

The press release argues that the rise can be explained, at least partially, by the growth of cheap package beach holidays since the late 1960s.

The rise in popularity of sunbeds and sunlamps may have also contributed to the increased rates.

Cancer Research UK, in collaboration with Nivea Sun, has used this opportunity to launch the third year of its campaign to encourage people to enjoy the sun safely this summer. Nivea Sun is a sunscreen brand. Many other sunscreen brands are available. For more information see our video on how to apply sunscreen.

Can I safely use sunlamps and sunbeds?

No. Both will expose you to potentially dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation.

A study in 2012 estimated that around 100 melanoma deaths a year in the UK are directly caused by sunbed use.

A 2013 survey found that 9 out of 10 sunbeds in the UK emitted levels of radiation above recommended safety standards.

If you want a tan, then fake is the way to go.

What is malignant melanoma?

Malignant melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. In malignant melanoma, cells called melanocytes – which make a pigment or colouring for the skin – become cancerous. The cancer can rapidly become aggressive with spread to deeper tissues, lymph nodes and to other parts of the body. Early recognition, diagnosis and treatment are essential for a good outcome.

One of the early warning signs is the change in appearance of an existing mole or the appearance of a new mole.

A good way to tell the difference between a normal mole and a melanoma is to use the ABCDE checklist:

  • A for asymmetrical – melanomas have two very different halves and are an irregular shape
  • B for border – unlike a normal mole, melanomas have a notched or ragged border
  • C for colours – melanomas will be a mix of two or more colours
  • D for diameter – unlike most moles, melanomas are larger than 6mm (¼inch) in diameter
  • E for enlargement or evolution – a mole that changes characteristics and size over time is more likely to be a melanoma

Melanomas can appear anywhere on your body, but the back, legs, arms and face are the most common locations. Sometimes, they may develop underneath a nail.

It is also important to regularly check your skin for any changes and see your GP promptly if you do detect any changes.

What do the latest statistics show?

After accounting for the age of people in the population, it was found that the number of people diagnosed with malignant melanoma is five times higher than 40 years ago.

Cancer Research UK states that more than 13,000 people are now being diagnosed with the disease every year, or 17 for every 100,000 people in Great Britain. In the mid 70s approximately 1,800 people were diagnosed with malignant melanoma each year, or just over 3 per 100,000 people.

Malignant melanoma is now the fifth most common cancer in the UK and more than 2,000 people die from the disease each year.

Why has the number of people being diagnosed with malignant melanoma increased?

The statistics can’t tell us why the number of people being diagnosed with malignant melanoma has increased.

Cancer Research UK suggests that the increase could be due to:

  • the increase in overseas package beach holidays
  • the popularity of tanning
  • increased sunbed use
  • better detection

UV exposure is the main risk factor for malignant melanoma and therefore it is possible that increased sun exposure through travel to hot countries, sunbathing and sunbed use are at least in part responsible for the increase in diagnoses.

However, Cancer Research UK’s latter point about better detection is also an important point. Awareness about malignant melanoma and its risks – both among the public and health professionals – is likely greatly improved today compared to how it was in the 1970s.

This may have contributed to the increases in the number of diagnoses, which is likely to be a good thing, as improved awareness and earlier diagnosis leads to improved prognosis.

As Cancer Research UK statistics also demonstrate, the five-year survival rate from malignant melanoma is much higher today than it was in the 1970s. However this may be due to the “lead time effect”, where five-year survival improves simply because the disease is diagnosed earlier.

What are the risk factors for malignant melanoma?

Those with the highest risk of the disease include people with pale skin, lots of moles or freckles, a history of sunburn or a previous skin cancer, or a family history of the disease. However, all people should take adequate precautions in the sun (e.g. during the UK summer or when travelling to hot countries), including using sunscreens, covering up with clothing, hats and sunglasses, and staying out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day.

How is it treated?

The main treatment for melanoma is surgery, although your treatment will depend on your circumstances.

If melanoma is diagnosed and treated at an early stage, surgery is usually successful. However, you may need follow-up care to prevent melanoma recurring.

If melanoma isn’t diagnosed until an advanced stage, treatment is mainly used to slow the spread of the cancer and reduce symptoms. This usually involves medicines, such as chemotherapy.

How can you prevent it?

One of the best ways for people to reduce their risk of melanoma is to avoid overexposure to UV light, and:

  • avoiding sunburn
  • spending time in the shade, covering up and using sunscreen
  • avoiding using sunbeds and sunlamps

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.

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