Skin Cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer among white or Caucasian populations, in the UK and worldwide (Cancer Research UK, 2012).

Alison French, RS Occupational Health Ltd

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer among white or Caucasian populations, in the UK and worldwide (Cancer Research UK, 2012). Over the past 25 years, rates of melanoma in the UK have risen faster than any other common cancer and numbers have quadrupled since 1982.  Most are easy to treat and pose only a small threat to life but one type, malignant melanoma, is difficult to treat unless detected early.

What are the main causes?

The main cause of skin cancer is over-exposure to the sun's harmful UV rays.  It's thought the UV radiation in sunlight causes subtle cell damage which can lead to cancerous changes.  It can occur on any part of your body, however, areas that are most at risk are those which are most exposed to the sun such as your face, neck, legs and arms.  If you have blue eyes, fair or red hair and fair skin that burns easily you’re more at risk. 

What are the main types of skin cancer?

There are three principal types of skin cancer which can have different symptoms and appearances.  Basal cell carcinoma and Squamous cell carcinoma are known as non-melanoma skin cancers.  They are usually slow growing, occur on sun-exposed areas of the skin and rarely spread.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer.  It affects a type of cell within the top layer of skin, epidermis.  It is a slow-growing cancer that usually develops in mid to late life and doesn't usually spread to other parts of the body.  The main symptom is a small, painless, pink/brownish-grey lump with a smooth surface that may become itchy and bleed.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) involves another type of cell in the top layer of skin or epidermis.  It usually affects the head, neck or back of the hands and the main symptom is an area of thickened, scaly skin that develops into a painless, hard lump, reddish brown in colour with an irregular edge.  The lump then becomes a recurring ulcer and doesn't heal.

Malignant Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer.  It develops from the pigmented cells that produce the skin's colouring, usually within a mole.  It tends to spread much more rapidly down through the layers of skin then through the bloodstream and is much more resistant to treatment.  If not caught early or treated successfully it can spread to the liver, lungs or brain.  The main symptom is a quick-growing, irregular, dark-coloured spot on previously normal skin or in an existing mole that changes size, colour, develops irregular edges, bleeds, itches, crusts or reddens.

How can I help prevent skin cancer?

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to avoid too much time in the sun.  Stick to the shade between 11am and 3pm.  Cover up with clothes, a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses. Apply a high-factor sunscreen (minimum SPF15) regularly, drink plenty of water to avoid overheating and avoid using sun lamps or sunbeds!  Tan sensibly and avoid getting burnt.

Many moles aren't cancerous, but it's vital to keep an eye on any you have.  Watch out for moles that change shape or colour, become bigger, itchy or inflamed, or that weep or bleed. If you notice any changes or are worried, get them checked by a doctor.

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