As UK melanoma rates soar, what are the signs, symptoms and risk factors of skin cancer ?

Skin cancer rates have soared in the UK [Photo: Getty]

Skin cancer rates have soared by 45% in the UK over the last decade, Cancer Research UK has warned.

Melanoma incidences rose in men by 53% in 2014-2016 and diagnoses in 25-49 year olds rose by 78% in 2014-16.

The spike has been attributed to the rise of package holidays and cheap flights to tourist destinations.

Melanoma skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK and the second most common in people aged 25 to 49.

But experts say nine out of 10 cases could be prevented if people protected their skin with a high factor sun cream. That includes remembering to cover up with SPF 15 or above in the UK as well as on holiday abroad.

READ MORE: Your sun protection guide: SPF, UVB and UVA explained

With that in mind, it’s worth educating yourself on skin cancer risks.

Sure you probably know a lot of the basics, like the fact that you need to slap on the sunscreencheck your moles for any suspicious changes and that your risk increases if you spend a lot of time on tanning beds or worshipping at the sun alter.

But there’s a lot more to being skin cancer savvy than that.

Know your moles! [Photo: Getty]

Signs and symptoms of skin cancer

Early detection

Finding skin cancer early saves lives. FACT. “Melanoma detected and removed early is almost always curable,” says Doctify rated Consultant Dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto.

“If caught late, there is a much higher chance of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. The 5-year survival rate is 95% for early, stage 1, disease compared to about 16% for late, stage 4, disease.”

“The skin is the largest and most visible organ of the body so often any changes or new moles will be overtly visible unlike cancer of an internal organ. This means that if more people know what to look for, we should be able to detect more melanomas at an early stage,” Dr Mahto adds.

How to examine your moles

Most dermatologists recommend skin self-exam on a monthly basis.

“Look closely at your entire body including the scalp, buttocks and genitalia, palms and soles including the spaces between the fingers and toes. Use the ABCDE rules above and see your doctor about any concerns,” advises Dr Mahto.

READ MORE: Forgetting to apply SPF to your eyelids could increase your risk of skin cancer

What to look for

The acronym ABCDE can be extremely helpful in evaluating moles. If a mole shows any of these features, it warrants review by a GP or dermatologist to exclude melanoma.

Asymmetry: one half of the mole is different to the other

Border: irregular, scalloped or poorly defined edge

Colour: uneven colour or variable colours within a mole

Diameter: the mole is bigger than 6mm in size

Evolving: the mole is changing in its size, shape or colour

Other signs to look out for include any new moles, a mole that looks significantly different to the others (known as the ugly duckling sign), or any skin lesion that bleeds or fails to heal.

But a changing mole doesn’t necessarily equal skin cancer. “Changing moles do not always represent skin cancer and most moles are usually harmless,” Dr Mahto explains. “It can be normal for moles to change in number and appearance; some can also disappear over time. Hormonal changes during puberty and pregnancy can cause moles to increase in number and become darker.”

Different types of skin cancer

Dr Nicole Chiang consultant dermatologist at BMI Beaumont and Highfield hospitals in Lancashire explains that there are three main types of skin cancers:-

Basal cell carcinoma (also called Rodent ulcers)

“This is the most common type, usually appear on sun-exposed areas such as face, back (due to excessive sun exposure in the past in fair skinned individuals). Thankfully, this type of skin cancer is not life-threatening, but it can cause a sore that is slow to heal, and eventually break down to form an ulcer,” she adds.

Key features:

– red spots or marks that persist for months (whereas an acne spot or infected hair follicle usually goes away within a month), very gradually enlarging

– sometimes, they bleeds intermittently, or the skin breaks to form a sore that is not healing.

Squamous cell carcinoma

“This type of skin cancer is related to excessive sun exposure, it can spread to local lymph nodes. Look out for a rapidly growing red spot, which usually has some crusts on the surface, can bleed and become painful,” Dr Chiang explains.


“This is the most serious type of skin cancer,” explains Dr Chiang. “Intermittent intense sun exposure is a risk factor.”

Melanoma can arise from an existing mole, or come from a completely new mole. “People who have a family history of melanoma are at higher risk (9 times higher) of getting a melanoma than those without a family history,” Dr Chiang adds.

But while exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays is a leading cause of skin cancer, you’re not necessarily risk-free just because you didn’t spend your youth frying yourself with baby oil or having a perma-tan of the sun bed variety.

Slapping on the suncream is key, even in the UK [Photo: Getty]

READ MORE: What does the number on your SPF cream actually mean?

Risk factors of skin cancer

  • Sunburn: We all know it, burning is bad when it comes to skin cancer, but according to Dr Mahto, a person’s risk of melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than 5 sunburns. Pretty scary.

  • Outdoor hobbies and occupation.

  • Tanning bed use.

  • Family history of melanoma: Approximately 10% of people with melanoma will have a family member with the disease.

  • Lots of moles.

  • Immunosuppression: “Often forgotten about, but a compromised immune systems as a result of chemotherapy, organ transplant, lymphoma or HIV/AIDS can increase the risk of melanoma,” Dr Mahto adds.

Reduce your risk of skin cancer by being sun safe

“The two most important things that we can do is avoid sun exposure or at least limit it,” advises Dr Mervyn Patterson, Woodford Medical.

“The worst time of the day when the sun is at its most intense in the UK is between 11am and 3pm. So this is the perfect time to have a long lunch inside or at least in the shade.”

And don’t be thinking dull days mean you can ditch the sun screen. “SPF 15 or above should be worn every day and all year. UV rays can penetrate through cloud and glass so even days that are not as bright require some sort of protection,” Dr Patterson adds.

Other sun-safe tips from Dr Mahto include:

  • Sunscreen – this should be broad spectrum containing protection against UVA and UVB and a factor of at least 15-30 should be recommended. This needs to be applied at least 30 minutes before going outdoors and reapplied every 2 hours for maximum benefit

  • Seek shade particularly between 11am to 4pm

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses

  • Wear protective loose cotton clothing over the arms and legs

  • Try not to use tanning beds