Melanoma – a deadly threat from the sun
Summer will soon be upon us and after such a cold winter many of us can’t wait to get out in the sun. Sunshine provides vitamin D which is essential for our health, and sun rays can tan our skin making us look fit and healthy.
But most people also now know that too much sun can be dangerous and one problem from over exposure to sunshine is melanoma.
It must be stated high up in this feature that everyone is different, and for some people the risk is low while others can be at very high risk. But whatever your risk factor, it is worth knowing a little bit more about the most dangerous form of skin cancer there is.
The number of people who develop melanoma is continuing to rise and here in the UK nearly 9,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year. It is more common in women and like most cancers it is also more common in older people. People with black or brown skin are less likely to develop melanoma as they have more natural protection against it.
For women, the most common place where melanoma develops is on the legs; while in men it is on the chest or back; but melanoma can develop anywhere, from the soles of your feet to the backs of your ears.
Melanoma is a malignant tumour that originates in melanocytes; these are the cells which produce the pigment melanin that colours our skin, hair and eyes. The problem starts when the melanocytes start to grow and divide more quickly than usual and start to spread into the surrounding surface layers of skin. When they grow out of control they usually look like a dark spot or mole on your skin and the majority of melanomas are black or brown, but they can be skin coloured or even red or purple.
About half of melanomas start with a change in normal looking skin. This usually looks like a dark area or an abnormal new mole. The other half of melanomas develop from a mole or freckle that you already have.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a melanoma and a normal mole. The following checklist (known as the ABCDE list) will give you an idea of what to look out for:
- Asymmetry – Melanomas are likely to be irregular or asymmetrical. Ordinary moles are usually symmetrical (both halves look the same).
- Border – Melanomas are more likely to have an irregular border with jagged edges. Moles usually have a well-defined regular border.
- Colour – Melanomas tend to have more than one colour. Moles are usually one shade of brown.
- Diameter – Melanomas are usually more than 7mm in diameter. Moles are normally no bigger than the blunt end of a pencil (about 6mm across).
- Evolving (changing) – Look for changes in the size, shape or colour of a mole.
If you have a mole that shows one or more of the above signs, a mole that is tingling or itching, or if there is any crusting or bleeding on a mole, see your doctor straight away.
Finding and treating melanoma quickly is vital. If it is not removed the cell can grow deeper into the layers of skin which contain tiny blood vessels and lymph channels. These can then pass the melanoma cells into other parts of the body.
If the melanoma is caught early enough, it is relatively simple to treat. The mole is removed and a wider local excision may be made to ensure there are no melanoma cells left behind. The recovery rate when melanoma is caught early enough is excellent.
Protecting yourself during the summer is so important in the prevention of melanoma, but today there are so many sun protection products available that it can all become a little overwhelming. What is best to protect yourself from too much sun but also expose your skin enough to ensure you enjoy the health benefits from the sun’s rays?
It is worth taking time to think about your skin type. People most at risk are those with fair skins, lots of moles or freckles or a family history of skin cancer. Then seek advice for the best sun preparation for you. There are some fundamental rules that apply to everyone, including never ever letting yourself burn; avoiding the sun when its rays are at its strongest (ie the hours around midday); and regularly checking your own skin.
Most pharmacies can offer good advice, there is a wealth of information on the website and there are also some specialist sites such as www.skincancer.org and www.cancerhelp.org.uk
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