Skin cancer – knowing your risk and what to look for

Melanoma is the sixth most common cancer in the UK, killing over 2,000 people in Britain each year, but as with all cancers, early detection remains the single most effective method for increasing chances of survival or achieving cure. Nevertheless, a recent survey of over a thousand people carried out by the British Association of Dermatologists revealed that 96% of us fail to check our skin the recommended once a month for skin cancer, and more than 77% would not recognise signs of the disease.

 The first step is to better understand your own risk. Per Hall, Clinical Director at Check4Cancer and a pioneer in the early detection of melanoma, comments: “There are various factors that put patients at increased risk. These can be a family history of melanoma, a personal history of melanoma or other skin cancers.” Families with large numbers of unusual looking moles also seem to carry a genetic predisposition (dysplastic naevus syndrome).

“We also know that fair skinned people who tan poorly (skin type 1), have red hair and freckles are at greater risk – perhaps three times that of the general population – and those with an increased number of moles have additional risk.”

Next, you should consider lifestyle factors – sun exposure habits being the most significant. “Some studies cite the number of sunny holidays per year as independent risk factors, and sunburn in adolescence can increase melanoma risk by 80%. According to Cancer Research UK, getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple your risk of developing malignant melanoma.”

The best advice is to minimise exposure to sunlight – especially between the hours of 11.00am and 3.00pm, when the radiation is strongest – and use high-factor sunscreen (eg SPF of 30, with good UVA protection) where skin exposure is unavoidable.

“We are also concerned about the effect of UV tanning booths,” adds Per, “particularly on the young whose skin may be gaining cumulative damaging UV effects. There are studies clearly linking UV damage from tanning booths to a higher incidence of melanoma; even if you do not burn in a tanning booth you have a four times increased risk of melanoma compared to the general population not using tanning booths.”

Patients who are immunosuppressed due to drugs or illnesses including HIV are also more prone to skin cancers and should take extra care.

Non melanoma skin cancer signs

When people think of skin cancer, they most commonly think of abnormal moles but non-melanoma skin cancer can take several forms. Non melanoma skin cancer signs to look out for include:

  • A white, red or pink lump that doesn’t disappear after 4 weeks.
  • Discoloured patches on the skin that doesn’t heal after 4 weeks.
  • A scaly or crusty patch of skin that doesn’t heal after 4 weeks.
  • A sore or scab that bleeds, hurts or itches and hasn’t healed after 4 weeks.
  • An ulcer that doesn’t heal.

Melanoma symptoms

There are some clear signs that a mole could be a melanoma. You should get medical advice if you have a mole that is showing any of the following melanoma symptoms:

  • Growing
  • Changing shape particularly if it has an irregular edge.
  • Getting darker, has multiple shades or is patchy.
  • Not symmetrical.
  • Itching or bleeding.
  • Painful.
  • Inflamed or crusty.

There is a simple ABCD rule for moles:

  • Asymmetry: the two halves of your mole do not look the same.
  • Border: the edges of your mole are irregular, blurred or jagged.
  • Colour: the colour of your mole is uneven, with more than one shade.
  • Diameter: your mole is wider than 6 mm in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser).

For more information visit our skin awareness page and watch our "what to look for when examining moles" video.

To see what abnormal moles and lesions look like and to learn more about the ABCD rule, please refer to our skin cancer pictures.