St Albans skin cancer sufferers give sun smart advice

Take care in the sun to lessen the chance of developing skin cancer

Take care in the sun to lessen the chance of developing skin cancer - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A dose of sunshine is a good thing; it helps flowers grow and we get most of our vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, which is essential for healthy bones.

But chances are you will know someone who has undergone too much sun exposure and developed skin cancer.

According to the British Skin Foundation, seven people die from this type of cancer every day in the UK.

There are 100,000 new cases of all skin cancer diagnosed in this country every year – and I have recently become part of those staggering statistics.

In the space of nine months I have had a precancerous lesion, a mole which had the potential to develop into a melanoma, removed from my back, and in May, further surgery on the top of my scalp to take out a basal cell carcinoma (BCC).

A BCC is a non-melanoma skin cancer and is the most common type of all skin cancer in the UK.

I consider myself very lucky that doctors have noticed both at an early stage.

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Skin cancer is a condition which is close to my heart - it robbed our family, especially an aunt and three cousins, of my lovely, gifted uncle two decades ago.

He was my distraught grandparent’s only boy and was doted on by my mum and her three sisters.

His death from malignant melanoma - a cancer which spread elsewhere - started from a mole on his leg, which had changed and become darker.

Years ago, as a result of my uncle’s death and knowing the importance of looking out for changes, I booked my husband, a keen former windsurfer, to have a mole on his back checked by his then GP.

The centre of this mole had become darker and was gradually spreading across the lighter, irregular perimeter.

When his doctor assured him it was fine and sent him away without further investigation, I re-booked him in for a biopsy - because I was very certain it had changed.

It was diagnosed as a melanoma and he had to have further surgery but luckily because it was at an early stage, he required no further treatment.

The one thing we had in common was that, growing up in New Zealand, we were outdoors constantly and throughout our childhood did not wear sunblock or hats.

I burned and blistered at least once every summer.

And with people enjoying summery weather and in the months ahead, possibly visiting hotter climes, the Herts Advertiser thought it was an ideal time to remind local residents of the importance of keeping safe in the sun.

At our request, Spire Harpenden Hospital has asked two patients to share their experiences, and hopefully help prevent others from also becoming a skin cancer statistic:

Seeing changes to a mole on her leg prompted a wise Karen Greener, who hails from this district, to see her doctor.

Karen explained: “It had become bigger, darker in colour and had become raised. I knew I needed to get it checked.”

Karen received a referral to Dr Verity Blackwell, a consultant dermatologist at Spire Harpenden Hospital, who carried out a small biopsy.

Although she was informed two weeks later that it was a melanoma, it was stage 1b, which means it was only in the skin, with no sign that it had spread to lymph nodes or other parts of her body.

Karen said: “Although it was cancer, it was caught early which was good news. The next stage was for me to have a wider incision to remove the mole and surrounding tissue – this meant we had definitely got it all.

“All the results from that and other tests to see if it had spread came back clear. I now come in to see Verity every three months for a general check-up.”

Karen said that her outlook on life since diagnosis was “definitely different”.

She has given up work and spends time looking after herself and her health.

Karen went on: “I value my health a lot more now and appreciate the people and things that are really important to me.

“My advice to anyone who is concerned would be to get it checked! Get that peace of mind. If you catch it early like I did then it’s less complicated and there’s less chance of it spreading.”

Several decades ago David Morris, of St Albans, developed an unusual lump on his shoulder.

Although he initially ignored it, David eventually realised that as the lump was not disappearing he should visit his GP, who referred him to a dermatologist.

Like fellow skin cancer sufferer Karen Greener, he is sharing his experience with readers to warn people about skin cancer and the importance of getting changes checked.

He said: “I was born and brought up in Brazil and can remember many a time of being sunburnt as a child – there wasn’t the awareness there is now about the dangers of the sun.

“When I moved to the UK I joined the Army and was shipped abroad again. Around 25-30 years ago, I developed a lump on my shoulder.”

Now also under the care of Dr Verity Blackwell, consultant dermatologist at Spire Harpenden Hospital, David has been receiving treatment for basal cell carcinoma (BCC), a non-melanoma skin cancer.

He said: “Years later more lumps have appeared as I get older.

“I go along for a consultation with Verity when I think something isn’t normal. She has a look and tells me either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for treatment.”

Treatment for very superficial BCC includes cryotherapy, where liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the skin cancer.

David explained: “I am normally seen within a week to have it removed with liquid nitrogen.

“I don’t worry about it as between us we’re very good at catching and treating it early – at least they’re on my skin so I can see them and get them dealt with.

“It hasn’t affected my life that much; I still go travelling but now I follow all the guidance about wearing a hat, not swimming in the high sun and wearing high factor sun cream.”

David went on: “I’d say to anyone worried about any changes, get it sorted quickly. Don’t sit on it!

“If it is something nasty, it can be treated at an early stage. Treatment with liquid nitrogen isn’t painful, it just stings a bit and it’s quick.”

Being smart in the sun can help you reduce your risk of developing skin cancer – just 10 minutes of strong sunshine is all it takes to burn pale skin.

Top tips from cancer-related websites include:

? Protect your eyes with sunglasses and skin with clothing – including a hat that protects your face, neck and ears

? Wear good quality wraparound sunglasses to stop the sun from getting in at the sides – look for the CE or British Standard mark (BS EN 1836: 2005) and a UV 400 label, giving 100 per cent UV protection

? Apply plenty of sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply every two hours. Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen after swimming and towel-drying

? The British Skin Foundation recommends choosing sunscreen with high protection – SPF 30 or more to protect against harmful UVA

? UVA makes up most of our natural sun light. It goes deeper into the skin and causes skin ageing; it is also linked to skin cancer. UVB is most likely to burn the skin and is the main cause of non-melanoma skin cancer

? Most sunscreens will last about 12-18 months after opening

? Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm

? Cancer Research UK warns that sunbeds are not a safe alternative to tanning outdoors. The intensity of some of the UV rays they give off can be 10-15 times higher than that of the midday sun

There are two main types of non-melanoma skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). A history of sunburn or recreational exposure to sunlight increase the risk of BCC.

Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, can develop from abnormal moles. About 13,300 people are diagnosed with melanoma in the UK each year. Skin cancer rates in Great Britain are more than five times higher than they were in the mid 1970s. Doctors believe this is because of a change in how much time we spend in the sun, such as more people taking holidays abroad.

Try to check your own skin regularly, about once a month. If you are worried about any moles or skin changes, for example developing new colours, changing shape, or looking inflamed, it is important to see your doctor to get them checked.

For more advice see: