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Prevention and symptoms of melanoma

A report by the health think tank The Kings Fund found that just under half of specialist work now relates to skin cancers, yet many people aren’t aware of what it is and what the signs and symptoms are.

Ultraviolet radiation directly leads to skin cancer

Skin cancer happens when the DNA in skin cells becomes damaged by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This causes the cells to keep growing and not naturally stop. This unstoppable growth is cancer. 

Malignant melanoma is the least common but most serious form of skin cancer, which can be fatal if not caught and removed early. It usually appears in or near to a mole, and people most at risk include those with pale skin who burn easily, those who have had past episodes of sunburn, people with many or unusual moles, and those who have previously had skin cancer or whose family members have had melanoma.

Finding skin cancers early is important, says Dr Bav Shergill, consultant dermatologist and trustee of the British Skin Foundation. “Most skin cancers can be cured if detected early. Doctors are reliant on people seeking help from their GPs when they notice abnormal growths or changes in their moles. It is important people are aware of the symptoms of skin cancer. If you have had skin cancer before, you are at a higher risk of developing another one.

“The best way to detect skin cancer is to check your skin regularly. About once a month is a good time to do it” Dr Shergill adds. “Examine the skin all over your body, and ask a friend or member of your family to look at areas you can’t see. Look out for moles or patches of skin that are growing, changing shape or colour, inflamed, bleeding, crusting, red around the edges, itchy, or behaving unusually. Remember, if in doubt, get it checked out straight away.”

There are different stages of skin cancer. ‘In situ’ lesions are confined to the top layer of skin, the epidermis, only and are usually 100% cured by treatment. The second stage of tumours is in the second outer skin layer, the dermis. The next stage is when a tumour spreads to the lymph nodes near the skin; for example to the armpit from the forearm. The final stage is when the tumour has spread throughout the body. This is very serious and usually life-limiting.

New drugs and successful treatments for skin cancer

The good news is that the majority of skin cancers can be successfully treated with surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Skin surgery for an early stage melanoma can cure between 90-100% of cancers, but the most aggressive types of melanoma have up to a 50% chance of spreading after surgery, so this group of patients need careful monitoring to check for signs of spread.

There’s more good news, as even though “there is no magic bullet” Dr Shergill says, “newer drugs are emerging which have demonstrated some astonishing responses during clinical trials.”

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