Common misconceptions abound when it comes to skin cancer, including its deadliest form, melanoma; from the safety of sunbeds to the risk levels for different demographic groups.

The reality is that no one is exempt from skin cancer, of any type. Non-melanoma cancers like basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), as well as melanoma, can develop at any stage of life, including adolescence. Skin cancers don’t discriminate based on age, ethnicity, skin tone, or where we live in the world.

Melanoma is currently the fifth most common form of cancer in the UK, and the nation’s most rapidly-increasing type, with over 16,700 new cases each year. But it’s also one of the most preventable, with research showing that nearly 90% of melanomas could be avoided.

For cases that are caught early, it’s highly treatable, and can usually be cured. The five-year survival rate for localised melanoma (where the cancer is confined to the skin) is around 99%.

“For those who receive an early diagnosis of melanoma, there’s an excellent chance of survival,” explains Susanna Daniels, CEO of UK melanoma charity Melanoma Focus. “This is why it’s so important that we raise awareness of melanoma across all demographics, so that everyone, including those groups of people who think skin cancer doesn’t apply to them, can better understand their risks and start checking their skin and nails.

“There are so many prevailing myths and misconceptions surrounding skin cancer which are stopping people from protecting themselves — and that’s ultimately costing lives.”

Education is key for improving skin cancer survival rates. A survey commissioned by Melanoma Focus found that only 54% of the UK public knew that a new, unusual-looking area of your skin that has been there for over a month could be a sign of melanoma.

The results showed that knowledge of skin cancer signs is lower in males, with only 43% knowing that a change in an existing mole or lesion could be a symptom of melanoma.

Throughout May, melanoma awareness campaigns are calling for people to check their skin for new or changing moles or lesions.

In fact, melanoma occurs relatively frequently among young people, and is the most common cancer in females in the 20-24 age group. While the risk of melanoma does increase with age, the number of melanoma cases diagnosed in young people is disproportionately high.

Greater awareness around the dangers of sunburn, and the use of sunbeds is particularly important among young people, with only 62% of people knowing that sunbed use increases the risk of skin cancer, according to a poll by Melanoma Focus.

While young people can feel a false sense of security and invincibility when it comes to skin cancer, similarly, those with darker skin tones often consider themselves ‘safer’ than those with light skin, because they tan easily and rarely burn.

For darker skin tones and non-White ethnic groups, detecting signs of skin cancer can be more of a challenge.

Inequity in melanoma survival

In the UK, people of White ethnicity make up the vast majority of melanoma cases (a study of skin cancer types by ethnicity showed 91.6% cases of melanoma were in White people), yet patients of non-White ethnicity were found to die at much higher rates. In the US, Black patients with melanoma have an estimated five-year melanoma survival rate of 71%, versus 94% for White patients.

In Black people, melanoma often occurs as acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM).

For people of colour, including people of African, Asian, Latino, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Native American descent, melanoma can present differently, making it harder to detect, and late-stage diagnoses much more common. In Black people, melanoma often occurs as acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) on areas of the body that get little sun exposure. Up to 60 to 75% of tumours are found on the palms, soles of the feet, or beneath the nails, as opposed to parts of the skin that are more exposed to sunlight.

Awareness raising initiatives

Engaging multi-racial groups and younger generations in skin cancer awareness initiatives is vital to encouraging proactive sun safety habits from an early age.

“The importance of early detection and prevention efforts across diverse communities can’t be overstated,” says Susanna, who represents a charity which provides help and support to melanoma patients and professionals, while working to raise awareness. “Lives can be saved through greater awareness and education in wider communities and multi-racial families, and we can all play a part in getting the message out there.”

Ben’s story

Ben Whitehouse, aged 39, who lives in Sussex and works in London, was diagnosed with melanoma in June 2023 and has made it his mission to help raise awareness of skin cancer.

The famous Tower 42, London’s first ‘true’ skyscraper, on the 9th May: Lit up for melanoma skin cancer awareness, featuring the recognisable cancer awareness ribbon.

His inspired approach has been to light up London’s landmark Tower 42, on May 9, as part of World Melanoma Awareness Month. The event aims to capture the attention of the capital’s nearly 9 million inhabitants, along with the rest of the UK, as various awareness-raising initiatives take place around the world.

“Being diagnosed at 39 with stage 2 melanoma came as a huge shock, particularly as my wife and I have two young children,” says Ben.

“I definitely believed many of the common myths, and thought it was much rarer among my age group than it is — I think a lot of my peers can be complacent about protecting their skin because of this knowledge gap and not knowing what to look for. For example, my melanoma was ‘amelanotic’ which means it didn’t look like a typical melanoma as it has no pigment — instead, it was the change to the mole that eventually triggered me to get it checked.”

Ben says he now wants to share his own experiences and help raise awareness of the importance of monthly self-checks and applying SPF sunscreen.

“One common misconception is ‘it’s only skin cancer’ and that you can simply ‘get it cut out and you’re cured’. Whilst this can be true if caught early, melanoma is a very deadly cancer and can spread quickly.

Tower 42 hosts a multimedia lighting system that allows for different colours and designs to be displayed: An inventive way to capture the attention of those in the city.

“The treatment is also much more than just a simple operation,” he explains. “As a stage 2 patient I am completing a one-year cycle of immunotherapy and need to have MRI and CT scans every 12 weeks for the coming years. On top of this, there are numerous appointments with oncologists and dermatologists, which requires a constant juggling act to fit around my family and work commitments — not to mention the side effects of the immunotherapy infusions.

“I am very fortunate that my wife Laura has been there at every step and we couldn’t be prouder of how Bella and Tilly (aged 2 and 4 when I was diagnosed) have taken it all in their stride. The Melanoma Focus charity has also been an incredible support resource and I am very proud to be sharing this opportunity to raise awareness with them.

“My advice is, please wear a minimum of SPF30 and please check your skin regularly — the importance of early detection cannot be stressed enough!”

What action can people take to protect their skin?

Melanoma Focus encourages people to check their skin and nails on a monthly basis and contact their GP if they notice new or changing moles or lesions.

Important ways for people of all ages to protect their skin from May to October include:

  • applying a broad SPF 30+ sunscreen when in the sun and reapplying every couple of hours;
  • cover up exposed skin, wear a hat and wrap-around sunglasses and clothing;
  • seeking shade and avoiding full sun exposure at peak times of day (between 11am-3pm, when the sun is highest in the sky and UV light is stronger).

To support Melanoma Focus’ awareness campaign this month, share posts on social media using the hashtag #knowyourskin, and tag Melanoma Focus.

ITN Business’ new three-part podcast: ‘Living with Melanoma’

ITN Business will be launching a new ‘Living with Melanoma’ podcast series, sponsored by MSD UK and hosted by Imogen Cheese, Melanoma Focus Trustee and Founder of the Melanoma Patient Conference, and Yam Sumbwanyambe, MSD Strategy Officer and host of The Black Sherpa podcast.

Behind the scenes: Recording the first episode of our ‘Living with Melanoma’ podcast.

The podcast aims to unpack some common myths that persist around skin cancer, including misconceptions about our risks when we live in the UK, our levels of exposure on cloudy days and how often we should be applying sunscreen.

Look out for more details on our Podcasts page.

 

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