In this second blog we going to begin by talking about Melanoma and then describe some simple ways we can lower our risk generally of skin cancer.
Melanoma is a condition which differs from its non-melanoma cousin in that it can spread much easier to other parts of the body (although non-melanoma can spread, that risk is considerably lower). The most obvious sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or some change in a mole you have already – that’s why mole watch, which we are going to discuss later, is so important. Classically these melanoma issues occur on the legs with females and on the backs with males, but it is possible for them to occur anywhere on the body – on the sole of the foot, in your private parts and mouth, even under a fingernail or at the back of your eye – they are not fussy.
So What Can We Do To Reduce Our Risk Of Skin Cancer?
It’s plainly obvious that we can best protect ourselves by reducing the amount of UV sunlight that frazzles our skin. That means the wearing of appropriately-designed clothing, hats and sunglasses and the use of creams and blocks, to protect us from UVA and UVB when necessary, upping the UV level of our protective creams depending on our environment, as well as using water-resistant creams if we are going to get wet. We also need to remember that UV bounces off light surfaces like tarmac and water and so build that phenomena into our protection.
Something else to consider is research, as highlighted by my friendly pharmacist, Natasha, which suggests that the average person tends to use only half the amount of cream that they should do in order to obtain adequate UV protection, and then aggravates this by failing to reapply it as often as they then need to; a good rule of thumb, she says therefore, is that we should use roughly twice as much cream as we do at the moment and then aim to reapply it every two to four hours. We should also use cream that has at least a SPF – sun protection factor – of 15 against UVB and, as minimum, a four-star rating for UVA (and isn’t out of date, as there is a shelf-life on these things).
We also need to be aware that simply wearing clothes as protection against the sun doesn’t always work as some materials will just let UV pass straight through it; if you are likely to be particularly exposed to the sun then consider specially designed hats and clothing with built-in UV protection or even put cream on underneath your clothes.
A final consideration is to remember that UV levels are at their highest between 11.00am and 3.00pm and so we therefore need to up our protection if out during that time.
The most important thing we can do, however, to help protect ourselves against skin cancer is simply change our mindset about sun tans. In recent decades we have come to associate sun-tanned skin with glamour, affluence and robust healthiness. It’s still glamorous – everyone loves a tan – but clearly, as we have learnt, not very healthy and that’s why we need to change our ways. If that means sitting under the dappled leaves of the palm tree whilst on holiday instead of frying on the pool edge then so be it – we’re bound to pick up a bit of a tan anyway so why push it and allow ourselves to get burnt?
Melanoma is such a nasty, fast-developing condition that we owe it to ourselves to take it seriously. While protecting ourselves from UV we also need to develop such a familiarity with our moles that we would soon notice any changes in old ones or, just as significantly, the arrival of a new one. To accommodate this, I would suggest a mole watch session at the beginning of each month which ties in nicely with the other Cancer Research UK review questions that we should be asking ourselves on a monthly basis. Obviously, there’s parts of the body that can’t be seen without doing awkward things with a mirror but that’s where you should get your partner involved as well. Principally, what you, and they, are looking for are:-
- Moles that have got bigger.
- Moles that have changed colour.
- Moles that have ‘gone wrong’ – bleeding, become itchy, sore, crusty or ulcerated.
- Moles that have changed shape.
- New moles.
The NHS website provides an ABCDE checklist advising on the difference between a normal mole and a melanoma which makes useful reading, especially when you combine this with looking at their visual guide on the subject. It suggests various questions about your moles, as follows …
- Asymmetrical? Melanomas have two different halves and are irregularly shaped.
- Border? Melanomas have a notched or ragged border.
- Colours? Melanomas will be a mixture of two or more colours.
- Diameter? Melanomas are larger than 6mm in diameter.
- Enlargement or Elevation? A mole that changes size over time is more likely to be a melanoma.
Of course, it’s a bit tricky working out what is old, new or changed but at least digital photography and modern phones makes these things easier for us than in the past; have your partner take photographs, perhaps placing a small ruler against your most vulnerable moles to assist in later comparison when mole watch day arrives at the beginning of every month. It’s worth doing because these melanomas can easily catch you out. A Bobby mate of mine, in his late thirties and as fit as can be, discovered one on his back; it was surgically removed along with a sizable piece of muscle and he was advised that should it have grown any deeper – and we’re talking a matter of millimetres here – part of it would have broken off to spread cancers elsewhere around the body. Phew …
Don’t forget, however, that you need to be also checking for signs of non-melanoma conditions – those pink or white lumps, red scaly patches as well as that sandpaper sensation you get with actinic keratoses. The simple advice is that if it doesn’t look right then it probably isn’t, so get it checked out.
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