Skin cancer rates 'surge since 1970s'

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The incidence of the most serious skin cancer in Great Britain is now five times higher than it was in the 1970s, figures show.

Cancer Research UK statistics show more than 13,000 people develop malignant melanoma each year, compared with around 1,800 in the mid-1970s.

It says the rise is partly due to rising popularity of package holidays to Europe from the late 1960s.

Sunbed use has also fuelled the increase, the charity has said.

Malignant melanoma is now the fifth most common cancer, with more than 2,000 dying from it each year.

Around 17 people in every 100,000 are diagnosed with the disease in Great Britain every year - compared with three per 100,000 in the mid 1970s.

Case Study

Mark Birnie

Mark Birnie, 48, from Chesterfield, was originally told a mole on his shoulder was a cyst. However, in February 2013 it was diagnosed as a malignant melanoma.

"The mole had been checked for at least 12 months. As it got larger it was deemed to be a cyst and would be cosmetic to remove.

"In January last year we insisted I be referred to a dermatologist consultant, he removed it and checked it and confirmed it was malignant.

"Full scans then confirmed it had spread to lymph nodes in my arm pit."

He said he had more tissue removed followed by radiation treatment and then quarterly skin check ups.

"In February this year I had confirmation that I had three cancerous brain tumours which had spread from the original melanoma."

He said six weeks on from having surgery to remove two of the tumours and treatment on the remaining one, he was at home recuperating.

'Stay in the shade'

Those with the highest risk of the disease include people with pale skin, lots of moles or freckles, a history of sunburn or a family history of the disease.

Experts advise spending time in the shade, covering up and using at least an SPF15 sunscreen.

Nick Ormiston-Smith, head of statistics at Cancer Research UK, said: "Since the mid-1970s, malignant melanoma incidence rates in the UK have increased more rapidly than for any of today's 10 most common cancers.

"Holidays in hot climates have become more affordable and sunbeds are more widely available since the 1970s.

"But we know overexposure to UV rays from the sun or sunbeds is the main cause of skin cancer.

'DNA damaged'

"This means, in many cases, the disease can be prevented, and is why it's essential to get into good sun safety habits, whether at home or abroad."

However, eight in 10 people survive the disease, among the highest rate for any cancer.

Mark Birnie, 48, from Chesterfield, recently underwent surgery to remove three cancerous brain tumours.

He told the BBC he had a mole on his shoulder repeatedly checked for around a year, but was told it was a cyst.

The mole was later diagnosed as a malignant melanoma by a dermatologist consultant, which then spread to the lymph nodes in his arm pit and to his brain.

"My mole bore no resemblance to the pictures that you see in the doctors' surgery or online," he said.

Risk factors

  • Fair skin that burns easily
  • Lots of moles or freckles
  • A history of sunburn
  • Red or fair hair
  • Light-coloured eyes
  • A personal or family history of skin cancer

Source: Cancer Research UK

"Any mole that grows, you need to get it checked out."

Caroline Cerny, senior health campaigns manager at Cancer Research, said: "Everyone loves getting out and about and enjoying the summer sun. It's essential to take care not to burn - sunburn is a clear sign that the DNA in your skin cells has been damaged and, over time, this can lead to skin cancer.

"When the sun is strong, pop on a T-shirt, spend some time in the shade and use a sunscreen with at least SPF15 and good UVA protection."

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