Take care and be aware this summer – skin cancer can affect anyone

Take care and be aware this summer - skin cancer can affect anyone

Melanoma skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, accounting for 5% of all new cancer cases. There are around 147,000 new non-melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK every year, that's more than 400 every day.

The human skin is our largest organ.  It has up to seven layers and guards the underlying bones, ligaments and internal organs.  If your skin is in good health, you probably rarely think of its functions but without them, you wouldn’t be able to survive.  It protects the body from harmful effects including ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun and works closely with the immune system to fight off bacteria and viruses.  It absorbs Vitamin D from the sun and its elasticity allows growth and change.  It contains an extensive network of nerve cells that allow you to feel and react to heat, cold pain, injury or even the gentlest touch.

Anything that interferes with skin function or causes change in appearance can have important consequences for our physical and mental health.  The skin has three layers:

  • The epidermis – the outer layer of the skin which provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone
  • The dermis – beneath the epidermis, contains touch connective tissue, hair follicles and sweat glands
  • The deeper subcutaneous tissue is made of fat and connective tissue.




The skin’s colour is created by special cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin.

Melanocytes are located in the epidermis.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells.  It is the most common form of cancer in the UK.  Most skin cancers are caused by exposure ultraviolet light in the sun, which damages the DNA in the skin cells.  The damage can happen before a cancer can develop.  Other less common causes include exposure to toxic substances or having a condition that weakens your immune system.  Skin cancers can be cured if detected early.

Causes and risk factors:

  • Skin type: people who are very fair skinned, especially those with fair or red hair, are more at risk of developing melanoma, as are people with a lot of freckles. People with darker skins can still get melanoma but they have more natural protection against it.  Melanomas are less common in dark-skinned people
  • Sun exposure: most skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun.  People who burn easily in the sun are particularly at risk.  The ultraviolet light in sunlight damages the DNA in the skin cells and the damage can happen years before a cancer develops. Past episodes of severe sunburn, often with blisters, and particularly in children, increase the risk of melanoma
  • Age: the risk of melanoma increases with age so it is more common in older people. However, younger people can also develop it
  • Sunbeds: people have an increased risk of melanoma if they have ever used a sunbed because sunbeds expose people to ultraviolet light (radiation).  The risk is highest for people who use a sunbed before the age of 35
  • Previous skin cancer: people who have already had a skin cancer have a greater risk of getting another one compared to someone who hasn’t had one.  This is most likely because of sun exposure.  Whilst there is an increased risk, this doesn’t mean that you will definitely develop another skin cancer
  • Family history of skin cancer: there may be some inherited genes that slightly increase the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers, but most non-melanoma skin cancers do not run in families.  Research has shown some families seem to have a higher number than norm and this is probably because skin type runs in families
  • Damaged immune system: people who have a reduced immunity due to an underlying illness or treatment are at increased chance of getting a melanoma.

Types of skin cancer

 Melanoma: these are less common than non-melanoma skin cancers but they are one of the most dangerous forms of skin cancer.  They can develop from existing moles, but they often appear as new marks on the skin.  Melanomas can appear on any part of the skin but they are most common on the body and in women on the legs. . They can invade the skin around them and may also spread to other areas such as lymph nodes, liver and lungs.  If they are treated early, the outlook is usually good
• Non-melanoma: these are more common than melanomas.  They are not connected to moles and can be less serious as they are less likely to spread to other parts of the body.  The two more common types are Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

How to recognise skin cancer

The most common symptoms of skin cancer are a change to a mole, freckle or normal patch of skin which can itch or bleed or crusts over and does not heal.

There is a simple ABCD system to help recognize skin cancers:

  • Asymmetry: the two halves of your mole does not look the same
  • Border: the edges of your mole may be irregular or jagged and show some notches
  • Colour of your mole is uneven, with different shades of black, brown and pink.
  • Diameter – most melanomas are at least 6mm. in diameter.

See your doctor if you have:

  • A spot or sore that doesn’t heal within four weeks
  • A sport or sore that hurts, is itchy, painful, or is crusty, scabs over, or bleeds for more than four weeks
  • Areas where the skin has broken down (an ulcer) and doesn’t heal within four weeks, and you can’t think of a reason for this change
  • A new mole or patch of skin that gets darker, becoming patchy or multi-shaded.


  • Protect yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays by spending time in the shade when the sun is at its strongest (between 10am and 4pm) and use sunscreen to prevent burning. The paler your skin, the more protection you will need to prevent burning
  • People who burn easily should always use a minimum SPF of 30 and a 4-star UVA rating during the summer. You should never use sunscreen in order to spend longer in the sun
  • Cover commonly burnt areas like the shoulders and face with clothing and a hat
  • In particular, children should be protected from the sun because sunburn or excessive exposure to the sun in childhood is thought to be the biggest risk factor for the developing of skin cancer as an adult. Cover exposed parts of your child’s skin with sunscreen, even on cloudy or overcast days, don’t forget to apply it to their shoulders, face, nose, ears, cheeks and tops of their feet, encourage them to play in the shade and use loose cotton clothes to protect them
  • Check your skin regularly for changes; about once a month check your skin in a well-lit room, understand what is normal for you so it’s easy to spot any changes and report them to your doctor early.

Be clear on skin cancer: Bill's story

Watch the video