Melanoma usually starts in existing moles, and is the most aggressive form of skin cancer, explains Dr. Hendrik-Tobias Arkenau, a consultant oncologist at Leaders in Oncology Care. Other skin cancers are more common, but don’t normally spread to other parts of the body.

According to Cancer Research UK, annual cases of malignant melanoma, have risen to 13,300 from around 1,800 in the 1970s, making the condition the fifth most common cancer in Britain.

Dr Arkenau says that “the increase is largely due to lifestyle factors, such as taking holidays in southern Europe and using sunbeds, combined with inadequate protection from UVA rays. These factors are driving the increase in melanoma cases in all age groups but particularly among younger individuals in their late 20s and early 30s,” he says.

Most at risk are fair skinned people who have a tendency to freckle in the sun. Using sunscreens with at least sun protection factor (SPF) 30, avoiding the sun between 11am and 3pm, and wearing long sleeves lowers the risk of skin cancer. Sunburn, on the other hand, doubles the risk.

Typical warning signs of the disease are new moles that start bleeding or changing in size, shape or colour. These should be immediately seen by a GP, as early diagnosis can improve survival – especially given the significant advancements in melanoma treatment made in recent years.

 “For decades, chemotherapy has been the only treatment for people with melanoma, who could expect to live a few months. Today, thanks to new, gene-targeted therapies, survival is measured in years,” says Dr Arkenau.

Recent statistics show, for example, that in England and Wales around 90 per cent of people diagnosed with malignant melanoma are expected to live 10 years or more.

“In about half of melanoma cases, mutations in a gene called BRAF lead to the release of proteins that stimulate cancer growth. Targeted treatments, which are available via the Cancer Drug Fund, can specifically target these proteins, unlike chemotherapy, which kills both cancerous and healthy tissues,” explains Dr Arkenau. “Additionally immunotherapy drugs are under development that can stimulate T-cells (a type of white blood cells) in the immune system to recognize and fight cancer proteins. The research so far has shown very promising long-term effects, in terms of halting or delaying cancer growth and being able to control the disease, leading to the exciting prospect that, one day, skin cancer will no longer be a life-threatening disease but a manageable chronic illness.”

 

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