Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, has this week revealed she’s been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a form of skin cancer — raising important awareness of the fifth most common type of cancer in the UK.

Posting on Instagram, the 64-year-old royal said she was taking some time to herself following the diagnosis of melanoma, which was made after a cancerous mole was removed during treatment for breast cancer and taken for analysis.

The Duchess of York had been diagnosed with breast cancer last summer, and underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

Image credit: Instagram: @sarahferguson15

“It was thanks to the great vigilance of my dermatologist that the melanoma was detected when it was,” she said in her post. “Naturally another cancer diagnosis has been a shock, but I’m in good spirits and grateful for the many messages of love and support.”

The mother-of-two used her message to stress the importance of self-checking; encouraging people to watch out for changes in size, shape, colour and texture of existing moles, and the emergence of new moles.

The royal is a patron of the Teenage Cancer Trust and her eldest daughter, Princess Beatrice, is patron of the British Skin Foundation.

Her awareness-raising post has been praised and supported by skin cancer charities, keen to reiterate the important message that people need to be aware of the signs of the disease, and check their skin once a month.

Melanoma skin cancer is the fifth most common form of cancer in the UK, with more than 16,700 new cases each year. When detected early, however, the disease can be cured. As with all cancers, education — and knowing how to recognise the signs — is key to early detection.

Recognising the signs of melanoma

A 2022 survey by Melanoma Focus found that only 20% of the UK public are confident that they can identify symptoms of melanoma skin cancer. The results showed that knowledge of signs is particularly low in males, with only 58% knowing that a change in an existing mole or lesion could be a symptom of melanoma skin cancer.

It also revealed that young people were shown to be less concerned about skin cancer, with only 68% saying they would see their GP if they noticed a red-flag symptom. Worrying news, considering melanoma occurs relatively frequently at younger ages.

Susanna Daniels, CEO of Melanoma Focus said, “Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, however, if detected early, most cases can be cured by surgical removal. Usually, the earlier this is done, the better the long-term outlook is likely to be.

“Everyone should be aware of their skin and moles, and looking out for any changes. This is especially important for people who spend a lot of time outdoors or work in construction, farming or other outdoor jobs. It’s crucial that you contact your GP if you notice new or changing moles or lesions.”

So, what is skin cancer, and what are the signs and risk factors?

Skin cancer has two types; melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanomas are less common than non-melanoma skin cancers, but more serious. Melanoma arises when the pigment-producing cells in the skin (melanocytes), start to grow out of control.

For 70% of adult cases of melanoma, it presents as new marks on the skin — with the remaining 30% of cases developing from existing moles.

Checking for anything unusual: The ‘ABCDEF’ checklist

What to look out for? If any of your moles or lesions show the following, make an appointment to see your GP:

A – Asymmetry: two halves differ in shape
B – Border: edges irregular or jagged
C – Colour: uneven/patchy; shades of black, white, grey, brown or pink; two or more colours = suspicious
D – Diameter: for most melanomas, at least 6mm
E – Evolving: changing in size, shape or colour
F – ‘Funny’: if it looks odd, or you aren’t happy about it for any reason

Some people are more at risk of developing skin cancer,  such as people who burn easily in the sun. The paler your skin, the more susceptible you are likely to be to sun damage and skin cancer.

Brown or black skin is more susceptible to a type of melanoma that’s not associated with sun exposure. It can appear under the nails, on the palms or soles, and in mucosal membranes such as the mouth.

Builders, farmers, surfers, gardeners and other people with outdoor occupations or hobbies are also more at risk of developing squamous cell carcinomas when they are quite young.

It’s advised we check our skin all over once a month and note the date.

Facts about melanoma

  • More people die of melanoma per year in the UK than in Australia
  • 86% of cases of melanoma are preventable
  • Melanomas can appear anywhere on the body, but for men, are most common on the back, and in women on the legs
  • In contrast to most cancer types, melanoma occurs relatively frequently at younger ages, from 15 upwards
  • Men typically have a higher lifetime risk (1 in 36) of developing melanoma, versus women (1 in 47).

Facts about non-melanoma

  • Non-melanoma are not connected to moles and can be less serious as they are less likely to spread to other parts of the body
  • The two more common types are Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma
  • Basal cell carcinoma is the most common, whilst squamous cell carcinoma is the more dangerous (as it’s the one that’s more likely to spread to other parts of the body)
  • Non-melanoma skin cancers tend to appear gradually and anywhere on the body, but most commonly on areas most exposed to the sun.

In the UK, charities such as the British Skin Foundation and Melanoma Focus offer a wealth of information and support, practical resources, patient guides, and in Melanoma Focus’ case, the UK’s only helpline for melanoma patients, carers and healthcare professionals.

Shaping the Future of Cancer Care

ITN Business’ upcoming news-style programme, Shaping The Future of Cancer Care, is dedicated to highlighting the invaluable work carried out by organisations in support of cancer patients and their families.

This programme will be premiered online this World Cancer Day, February 4th, 2024, raising awareness, and showcasing the global-scale research and innovative efforts aimed at fighting cancer.