Rates of melanoma skin cancer hit all-time high in UK, study finds

Rates of melanoma skin cancer have reached an all-time high in the UK, according to analysis that highlights a substantial rise in the number of cases over the past decade, particularly among older people.

New diagnoses increased by almost a third from 21 to 28 in every 100,000 people between 2007-09 and 2017-19, according to Cancer Research UK (CRUK) figures, with a 57% rise among the over-80s and a 7% rise in those aged 25 to 49.

The difference in trends is thought to reflect a greater awareness among younger people of the link between ultraviolet (UV) light and skin cancer risk. Older people knew less about the dangers of tanning and were the first generation exposed to the cheap package-holiday boom that began in the 1960s.

CRUK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said it was “concerning” to see the number of people being diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer across the UK. “The fact that the majority of these cases are preventable underlines the importance of people taking sun safety seriously.”

The charity’s projections suggest a record 20,800 cases will be diagnosed in the UK this year, about 17,000 of which are preventable. Almost 90% of melanoma is caused by too much exposure to UV light, which can damage DNA in the skin.

Other factors, such as a growing and ageing population, and better awareness of the signs of skin cancer, have contributed to the rising figures.

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Despite the steady rise in cases, deaths from melanoma are expected to continue to fall, the charity said. Improvements in early diagnosis and treatment have doubled melanoma survival times in the past 50 years, with almost nine in 10 adults diagnosed with the cancer in England now surviving for 10 years or more.

“Getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple the risk of developing skin cancer, compared with never being burnt,” said Dr Claire Knight, a senior health information manager at Cancer Research UK. “Whether you are enjoying the good weather abroad or here at home, it’s important to protect yourself from too much sun, especially if you burn easily.”

“Remember that sunburn doesn’t only happen when it’s hot,” she added. “It can happen on cooler or cloudier days too.” The charity advises people to spend time in the shade, particularly between 11am and 3pm; to cover up with clothes, a wide-brimmed hat, and UV-protection sunglasses; and regularly apply a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and four or five stars.

The warning comes a month after doctors at University College London hospital launched a phase-three trial into a potentially “game changing” mRNA-based cancer vaccine for melanoma. The personalised treatment, which primes the immune system to attack the patient’s cancer cells, is in further trials for lung, bladder and kidney cancer.


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