Having recently trained in the early detection of skin cancer, I wanted to share some of my new-found knowledge with you in the hope of helping you avoid the disease. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and rates are increasing. The good news is that 86% of skin cancers are preventable and there are a number of simple actions that we can each take to stay safe.
There are several types of skin cancer, some of which are more serious than others. Melanomas (e.g. nodular, acral lentiginous, subungual) are dark tumours that start in melanocytes and are easy to see on the skin or under nails. If left, they spread elsewhere in the body and early detection is key to successful treatment. Non-melanoma skin cancers (e.g. basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) tend to be slow growing and are usually disfiguring rather than fatal, but still require medical attention.
The ultraviolet radiation (UVR) emitted by the sun is carcinogenic to humans and nearly all skin cancers are caused by over exposure to it. The damage is cumulative and has a premature aging effect (wrinkling, sagging and blotching of the skin) as well as increasing the risk of skin cancer. Sunbeds emit the same harmful rays as the sun, but at an even higher intensity, so are not a safe tanning option. A tan anyway is a sign of over exposure to UVR.
Our skin needs some exposure to sunlight to produce vitamin D, but 15-20 minutes a day is sufficient over the spring and summer months, ideally before 11am or after 3pm when UVR levels are lower and less harmful. I will talk more about vitamin D in a later blog post.
Prevention is always better than cure and, as I mentioned at the beginning, most skin cancers are preventable. I love the alliteration of the five Ss of staying safe in the sun:
- Slip on a top to cover your shoulders as they are most at risk of sun damage, so it is best to keep them covered in direct sun (close-weave fabrics are more effective than thinner ones and fabrics with a high ultraviolet protection factor are better still).
- Slap on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and with a minimum of four-star UVA protection 20 minutes before sun exposure and re-apply every two hours or after swimming - remember to protect your lips too with SPF30+ lip balm.
- Slop on a wide-brimmed, close-weave hat, ideally made with a ultraviolet protection factor (UPF)-rated fabric, to protect your face, neck and shoulders (baseball caps don’t provide sufficient coverage).
- Slide on a pair of sunglasses that have a CE mark to ensure a safe level of protection.
- Seek the shade, especially between 11am and 3pm and don’t rely on it solely for protection, use the other measures above too.
It is easy to become complacent about sun protection, but it is something that we need to keep working at all through life and it is a crucial part of our self care. As a therapist, I see a lot of people regularly, so I am in a good position to look out for signs of skin cancer, which is why I have done the skin surveillance training. Early detection is key to successful treatment. Better still is prevention.
I have a sun safety booklet available that I can email to you, so do get in touch if you would like a copy (firstname.lastname@example.org). It is an invaluable resource including advice on both the prevention and detection of skin cancer.