Yep, HTSYPC Has Noticed That The Sun Is Out And Everyone Is Going On Leave …
When I was a kid growing up during the 1970s and nothing could harm you, my family used to enjoy long camping trips around the South of France in our Bedford Dormobile – we were posh like that. A couple of things that stick in my mind about those holidays are, firstly the sand was always so incredibly hot on whatever beautiful beach we had sited ourselves for the day that my old man would have to carry me backwards and forwards to the water’s edge to avoid my feet burning off and, secondly, when back in the van and motoring back to the campsite my mum was forever telling me to put my tee-shirt back on as otherwise dead bits of peeling skin from my shoulders and arms had a tendency to fly around the cab and distract the old fella from his driving. But enough of my ‘seventies childhood, let’s talk about skin cancer and how you get it.
The main cause is too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation – UVA, UVB and the lesser known UVC (the rays which the ozone layer is supposed to protect us from). Skin cancer can be subdivided intonon-melanoma cancer and the less common but rather nasty melanoma. Let’s start with …
Non-melanoma Skin Cancer.
This describes a group of cancers that develop slowly in the upper layers of the skin, often on areas regularly exposed to the sun such as the face, ears, hands, shoulders, chest and back. Natural UVB is thought to be the main culprit but the use of artificial tanning devices can also increase your risk. Around 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year with men more likely to be affected than women.
Non-melanoma cancers generally announce their arrival with a lump or patch of discoloured skin that won’t go away and slowly gets worse over months or years. If it’s a lump then it’s likely to be red and firm, or perhaps turning into an ulcer; if it’s a patch then it’s likely to be flat and scaly.
The most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma but is sometimes referred to as rodent ulcer being as the marks created have an appearance which seem to suggest that you’ve been bitten by a rat. Roughly three-quarters of all non-melanoma skin cancers are caused by this condition.
A second common type is squamous cell carcinoma which presents as a firm pink lump with a crusted, even spikey-horned, surface. This lump will probably be tender to the touch, bleed easily and could well turn into an ulcer as well.
The main risk factors for non-melanoma skin cancer are:-
Having pale skin and / or blue eyes and / or blond hair (note for historians there; the Third Reich was clearly doomed, if only as a result of skin cancer). People with green / grey / hazel eyes are also at higher risk. Darker skinned people are less likely to get skin cancer generally, but they can be particularly at risk on parts of the body which are less exposed to sun like the soles of the feet or the palm of the hand. Albinos, unsurprisingly, are at particular risk.
- Having red hair.
- Getting older.
- Having a lot of moles.
- Using sun beds.
Exposure to chemicals such as arsenic (which presumably increases your risk of death generally) and creosote (which at least gives you an excuse for not staining that garden fence for another year – actually, a lot of the ‘creosote’ you find down the DIY store these days is ‘creosote substitute’ I suspect because of this issue).
- Instances, and especially repeated instances, of bad sunburn in the past … oh good.
- Having had repeated instances of sunburn during your childhood … doesn’t it get better and better?
- A family history of melanoma and non-melanoma.
- Working at an outdoor job (at last, some reason to be thankful for all those reports you have to compile whilst stuck in the nick).
- Having had radiotherapy.
- Having a large number of freckles.
- Previously having had a medical condition which weakened your immune system …
- … as well as previously having had medicines which weakened your immune system.
Actinic keratoses – also known as solar keratoses – is a lesser skin damage condition also caused by years of over-exposure to the sun but has the potential to develop into squamous cell carcinoma non-melanoma if not treated. It shows itself as rough, scaly, itchy skin which feels almost like sandpaper and sore to the touch.
I notice each year down my sailing club at least one new case of actinic keratoses amongst the older generation of sailors for whom the sun has finally caught up with them and they are undergoing treatment in the form of photodynamic therapy. This is where special cream is applied to the damaged area and then left for some weeks to kill off the dangerous cells with the aid of natural sunlight; the general effect is as if paint-stripper has been applied to the skin – more often the forehead, nose and cheeks – and they advise me that it is pretty uncomfortable … I don’t disbelieve them because it looks grim.
Concern over sun damage while out on the water has led to the use of wide-brimmed hats by most people at the club, including one particular brand – the Tilley – who’s reputation for quality and endurance was established when a Canadian animal trainer described how his was still in good condition even though his elephant had eaten it and pooed it out its bottom … three times; all the trainer did was pop it through the washing machine and allow it to dry out before putting it back on his head. Other hat brands are available …
Hang On … Isn’t A Bit Of Sun Good For Your Health?
Yes, it’s fair to say that you need a reasonable bit of sunlight on your skin to create Vitamin D and so keep your body in shape; that’s why custody sergeants and jailors always look so rough and pasty (oh what a funny joke that was before I got chucked into custody …). The reality is, however, that you don’t need that much. The World Health Organisation suggests that the average person will generate sufficient vitamin D through only five to fifteen minutes of casual sun exposure to the face, hands and arms, three times a week; progressive exposure over and above this can lead on to problems. Yep, I appreciate that we like a nice tan but, in reality, that tan is actually damaged skin – a pigment called melanin which the body produces in an attempt to protect you from further sun damage. And when our skin goes on to peel it leaves us even more vulnerable to UV damage. In the long-term repeated exposure to sun encourages the ageing of our skin through UVA penetrating deep into the skin layers damaging the connective tissue and destroying its elasticity, causing sagginess. The skin also goes leathery and blotchy with dark patches or liver spots caused by overproduction of that melanin. So, in conclusion – and sorry to be a killjoy – the more exposure we have to the sun when we are younger, the higher the price we will pay as we get older.
We are going to put out a second blog about skin cancer over the next few days so keep an eye out for it. For other health and humour blogs of interest to police officers and staff check out.
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