Skin cancer causes and risks

3 June 2018

According to Cancer Research UK, malignant melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK and 1 in 54 people will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma during their lifetime. Around 15,400 new cases of malignant melanoma are diagnosed in the UK each year; that’s around 42 new cases diagnosed every day. Yet 86% of these could have been prevented*.

Discussion with our medical director

Consultant occupational health physician, Dr Yousef Habbab says: “Malignant melanoma is a very serious and aggressive form of skin cancer worldwide, and around 2,460 people die from it each year in the UK*. However, early diagnosis with no spread to any part of the body could significantly increase the likelihood of the cancer being cured by simply removing it.”

What causes malignant melanomas?

There is one main preventable factor that increases the risk of developing melanoma - ultraviolet light (radiation). Ultraviolet light comes from the sun or sunbeds. But some people are more at risk of getting melanoma than others, as this page explains. Over exposure to sunlight can cause patches of rough, dry skin called solar keratoses. Studies show that people with solar keratoses have a risk of melanoma on their head, neck or limbs that is 4 times higher than the general population.

Moles and melanoma

Moles are clusters of cells that produce a pigment in the skin and it is normal to have them. Melanomas develop when those cells behave abnormally and invade the skin around moles or spread to other areas such as the lymph nodes, liver and lungs. Some of us have more moles than others. The more moles on the body, the higher the risk of melanoma. That doesn’t mean that someone will definitely get melanoma if they have lots of moles. However, it does mean that those people should be more careful about exposure to the sun, and certainly keep a watchful eye on all their moles.

What are the warning signs

It’s important to keep a look out for things that may be signs of something more serious than an innocent mole, particularly if they have changed in shape, colour or sensation. All melanomas do not look the same and there are several different types.

Follow the ‘ABCDE’ rule below as a melanoma may show one or more of the following features:

A – asymmetry (an irregular shaped mole)

B – borders (ragged edges)

C – colour change or a mole that is a different colour in one part than in another

D – diameter (any increase in size, but particularly more than about 6mm across)

E – elevation (raising from the surface, especially if it is irregularly raised)

Melanomas can appear on any part of the skin but they are most common in men on the trunk, and in women on the legs.

View our animation for an illustration of the warning signs to look out for with moles.

Who is at risk?

High risk groups include those with fair skin who burn easily, people with lots of moles, those with a family history of melanomas, those who were sunburnt in childhood and those with weakened immune system.

How are melanomas treated?

There are a number of factors that a specialist will consider when they plan treatment. The main factor is how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin, and whether it has spread (the stage). Surgery is the main treatment for people with early melanoma. If the cancer has spread (advanced melanoma), then treatment may involve biological therapy, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

What’s the best way to protect yourself?

It’s important to protect your skin from sun damage. Cover up with a hat, clothes and UV protective glasses, stay in the shade between 11am and 3pm when it’s sunny, use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 30, keep babies and children out of direct sunlight and report any changes in moles to your doctor. It may be easier to keep track of any changes in moles by taking photos of them and comparing any later changes to the point of reference.

Statistics source: Cancer Research UK

Sources and further reading

Further Reading

Visit our Cancer Centre or post any questions you might have to one of our health experts.

Useful resources