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How to spot the signs of melanoma early

Melanoma is a largely preventable disease. People can reduce their chance of developing skin cancer in the first place if they protect their skin from sunburn. But it's also important that people are aware of the warning signs for malignant melanoma.

Look out for changes in size, shape or colour of a mole, freckle or normal patch of skin - these should be reported to a GP without delay. In particular look for moles or freckles that are asymmetrical, with uneven colours or borders, larger than a pencil top eraser, are itchy or bleed.

– Sara Hiom, director of information at Cancer Research UK

Risk factors and causes of melanoma

  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun - People who experience episodes of sunburn, especially where the skin blisters, are more at risk. It’s important for everyone to be aware of the damage that too much exposure to the sun can cause.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunbeds - Sunbeds give off artificial UV rays that damage the DNA and increase the risk of developing melanoma. The more you use a sunbed or lamp, and the earlier in life you begin using them, the greater your risk.

Government warns of skin cancer risks

Over-exposure to the sun is one of the main risk factors for this type of cancer.

It's really important to be sun safe - use a high factor sunscreen, cover up and spend the hottest times of the day in the shade.

We recently launched a new skin cancer campaign called 'flag it', encouraging young people to look after each other when enjoying the sun.

– A Department of Health spokesman

Melanoma cases on the increase

  • In 1981 there were about 480 50 to 59-year-olds diagnosed with malignant melanoma in Britain
  • The figure soared to almost 1,950 a year by 2010, Cancer Research UK said.
  • Almost five people a day are diagnosed with the melanoma in Britain - which can prove fatal if diagnosed at a late stage.
  • Figures show that the number of cases of malignant melanoma across all age groups are on the rise.
  • In 2010, 12,800 people in the UK were diagnosed with the disease compared with 12,100 in 2009.

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Most people unaware of key warning signs of skin cancer

People's idea of what skin cancer looks like is limited to three or four images that are widely used to promote awareness of the disease - but we don't think this goes far enough with helping people identify the problem.

It's a bit like bird spotting - using pictures as a guide to what malignant melanoma could look like and helping people make a better decision about seeing their doctor.

If caught early, melanoma can be treated very successfully so if we can develop a better system of encouraging people to go to the doctor, this could potentially save a great deal of lives.

– Professor Jonathan Rees, University of Edinburgh

What is Melanoma?

  • Melanoma is a cancer that usually starts in the skin, either in a mole or in normal-looking skin. About half of all melanomas start in normal-looking skin.
  • The number of people developing melanoma is continuing to rise. More than 10,600 people in the UK are diagnosed with melanoma each year.
  • Melanoma is more common in women, particularly young women. In the UK it’s the most common cancer in people aged 15–34.
  • In women the most common place to develop melanoma is on the legs; in men it’s on the chest and the back.

Skin cancer cases on the rise

The number of men and women in their 50s suffering from the most dangerous type of skin cancer has quadrupled in the last three decades, figures suggest.

Skin Cancer
Brits soaking up the sun in Bournemouth Credit: Chris Ison/PA Wire

In 1981 there were about 480 50 to 59-year-olds diagnosed with malignant melanoma in Britain and the figure soared to almost 1,950 a year by 2010, Cancer Research UK said.

The charity is working with supermarket chain Tesco to raise awareness about the importance of early diagnosis.

The store is providing leaflets about cancer and is aiming to raise £10 million this year to fund 32 early diagnosis research projects across the UK.

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