Doctor’s five easy-to-remember cancer checks for the skin

Skin cancer: Dr Chris outlines the signs of a melanoma

With summer approaching many of us will be grateful for the extra warmth and sunlight it will afford after the colder, darker months. While there are health benefits to a certain amount of sun exposure, too much of it can be dangerous. An expert spoke exclusively with about the risks and signs of skin cancer.

Doctor Paul Banwell, previous head and founder of The Melanoma and Skin Cancer Unit (MASCU) in East Grinstead, said sudden sun exposure can do the most damage to your skin – whereas slowly exposing your skin to the sun for a few minutes a day allows the melanocytes to gradually produce more melanin or pigment.

He warned that now is the time to take precautions against skin damage, which can lead to skin cancer – one of the most common cancers in the UK.

“Too much ultraviolet (UV) exposure can cause sunburn as the rays hit the deeper layers of the skin, the dermis, and can damage the cells,” said Dr Banwell.

“UVB rays can lead to sunburn and UVA rays can travel more deeply into the skin and both affect your skin’s health.”

He urged people to look out for the signs of skin cancer – and to self-examine.

He said: “If it is caught early, it can be easily treated. Skin cancers can look very different and the symptoms can vary. The signs of skin cancer are important to note.”

There are different types of skin cancer; non-melanoma skin cancers and malignant melanomas.

“Non-melanoma skin cancer refers to a group of cancers that slowly develop in the upper layers of the skin,” Dr Banwell said.

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“These are the more common types of skin cancer. The main types of non-melanoma skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas.

“Common symptoms of skin cancer include a sore or area of skin that doesn’t heal within four weeks, looks unusual or hurts, is itchy, bleeds, crusts or scabs for more than four weeks.”

The less common type of skin cancer is known as melanoma, which can be more serious.

“Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can spread to other organs,” he said.

The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change to an existing mole.

He said: “For melanoma, any pigmented mole that changes colour, size, outline or moles that bleed, become raised or crusty should be checked, especially if there are pre-existing multiple moles, a family history of skin cancer, sunburn history and sun bed use.

“Also outdoor sports such as sailing, surfing, windsurfing, golf and tennis are risk factors too.”

Dr Banwell said there are five ways to spot a melanoma, using “ABCDE” for reference:

  • Asymmetrical – Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different?
  • Border – Is the border irregular or jagged?
  • Colour – Is the colour uneven?
  • Diameter – Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pea?
  • Evolving – Has the mole or spot changed during the last few weeks or months?

He added: “Although it can happen anywhere, it’s most common on the back for men and the legs for women.

“They’re uncommon in areas that are protected from the sun’s UV rays, such as the buttocks and the scalp.”

Aside from staying out of the sun or keeping your skin covered by clothes, the best level of protection is sunscreen.

“Fortunately skin protection in the form of SPF is better and more advanced than ever before, however people continue to apply it too sparingly and not often enough,” Dr Banwell said.

“It’s essential that a greater emphasis is placed on the importance of regular SPF application, even when it’s not sunny.”

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