On a bank holiday Monday, if the sun shines, mad dogs and Englishmen forget the factor 30 and head to the park. At least – given the unreliable British weather – that’s the plan. Off come the tops, shoulders are bared: we aren’t in Tenerife, so why should we bother with suncream? Yet, by the end of the day, a large section of the population has the British “tan” – pink and sore.
But even though we love our bursts of sun after a long, cold winter – and exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of the ‘“feel good” hormone serotonin – the sting of that evening sunburn could last in a way that is insidious and even deadly.
According to figures from top cancer hospital the Royal Marsden, rates of malignant melanoma are rising faster than any other common cancer. Around 15,400 people are diagnosed a year. Over the last decade, the number of people diagnosed has increased by 50 per cent – and experts think it’s set to rise further. Children of the 1960s and 70s are especially at risk having caught the package holiday era in their youth and not used suncream.
Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer. While it is less common than basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, it’s more dangerous because of its ability to spread to other organs more rapidly if not treated at an early stage. The most common sign is the appearance of a mole or a change in an existing one. Hence people – especially those over 50 – should check their moles regularly and seek the advice of a GP or dermatologist if concerned.
“The highest risk factor for malignant melanoma is exposure to UV light,” says Dr Haytham Al-Rawi, consultant dermatologist and dermatological surgeon at Spire Little Aston Hospital in Birmingham. “Melanoma is caused when the pigment-producing cells, or melanocytes, in our skin mutate and become cancerous over time.”
One explanation for the rise in statistics, says Dr Al-Rawi, is greater awareness: people see a doctor earlier than in the past. That’s the good news. But most of the increase is down to a rise in disease, due to holidays at home and abroad, and sun-bed use. Melanoma diagnoses are particularly high amongst the sun-worshippers of the Seventies and Eighties, when to look “brown” was a sign of affluence and health. “To a certain extent, the problem has been ‘stored up’ from those days,” says Dr Al-Rawi. “When people sat in the sun covered in olive oil, it was the worst thing they could do. My patients tell me ‘I haven’t been in the sun for years’ but they don’t realize the cumulative effect.”
In some ways, says Dr Al-Rawi, we are “more guilty” at home. “Even on cloudy days, there is UV light,” he says. “Some of my friends were out on Easter weekend – those first warm few days of the year. Even though it was barely 20 degrees, they got burnt. We need to be more vigilant, even when playing golf, or gardening.”
Julia Newton-Bishop, professor of dermatology at the University of Leeds, agrees. “Pale-skinned people, whether they get burned in the garden at home or abroad, are most at risk,” she says. “And that includes many people in the UK.” (Australia, peopled by pale-skinned emigrants, has the highest melanoma rates in the world, despite the high profile Slip, Slap, Slop skin cancer campaigns of the Eighties.)
Newton-Bishop points out that it’s the “intermittency” that’s key – if you don’t have much sun then expose yourself suddenly, even for a short time – as we Brits are wont to do, it can be dangerous. And a “burn” is not only a blister or peeling. Going “pink”, which people think is normal at the start of the summer, is still a burn. This is more dangerous than living in a hotter country, where you gain a gradual tan.
Three-quarters of people diagnosed with malignant melanoma have their cancers excised and are fine for the rest of their lives. But the other 25 per cent are in danger of the cancer returning and spreading – which can be incredibly serious.
Sean Guinness, 60, is a management consultant from Harrogate, Yorkshire. He is currently “all clear, at the moment, because that’s all you can say” after a gruelling five-year battle with melanoma that spread to his digestive organs. Guinness traveled to sunny climes with his parents as a child and often worked outdoors at summer events in the UK: in 1988, he spent a year volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel, working outside in the height of a summer where temperatures often reach 40C. “I never used suncream,” says Guinness, who also smoked. “Being a guy, I didn’t like unguents. I found lotion sticky and uncomfortable. There was certainly no suggestion from anyone around me that I use it.”
Like many of his generation, Guinness, who has moderately fair skin “loved having a golden tan”. “It was healthy and attractive,” he says. “But in that period, everyone was the same. My sisters threw themselves into the sun at any chance, covered in Hawaiian tropic.”