Sun Smart: Understanding and Preventing Skin Cancer in Ireland

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month!

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Ireland. However, the good news is that it’s often preventable. By avoiding too much exposure to UV rays from sunlight or artificial sources like sunbeds, you can reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer occurs when skin cells undergo abnormal and uncontrolled growth due to DNA damage, leading to rapid multiplication and the development of cancerous cells. It is the most common form of cancer in Ireland, yet it is largely preventable, with early detection significantly improving outcomes. The primary cause of most skin cancers is overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, primarily from sunlight, although artificial sources like sunbeds can also contribute.

Skin cancer can be categorized into two main types: non-melanoma skin cancer, and malignant melanoma. While melanoma is not the most common type of skin cancer, it is of particular concern due to its potential to spread to other parts of the body, making it challenging to treat and potentially fatal.

Given that a majority of people in Ireland have fair skin that is prone to burning and tanning poorly, they are especially vulnerable to sun damage and skin cancer. Recognising changes in the skin’s appearance, such as the development of new growths, non-healing sores, or changes in moles, serves as a crucial warning sign for potential skin cancer.  It’s important to promptly seek profession medical advice if you notice any of these skin changes.

Melanoma Skin Cancer

Melanoma represents a potentially severe form of skin cancer, arising from the uncontrolled growth of melanocytes, the cells responsible for pigment production in the skin. Mild growths of melanocytes are commonly referred to as moles or freckles.

Unlike many other cancer types, melanoma often shows up in young to middle-aged adults, ranking as the fourth most common cancer in Ireland. Over the past two decades, both the incidence and mortality rates of melanoma have been on the rise in Ireland.

Thankfully, early detection and intervention offer the possibility of complete cure for melanoma. Promptly seek medical attention if you notice any suspicious skin growths and to reduce UV exposure and sunburns.

Melanoma Risk Factors:

Although melanoma can affect anyone, certain factors can increase the risk:

  • Periodic, intense exposure to sunlight
  • Sunburns, especially in childhood
  • Use of sunbeds
  • A history of melanoma or other skin cancers
  • Various large or atypical moles
  • Immunosuppression
  • Multiple moles, varying in size, shape, and coloration
  • Fair complexion: pale skin, blue eyes, red or blonde hair, and freckles
  • Family history of melanoma

Prevention:

Preventing melanoma involves protecting yourself from excessive UV exposure, both from sunlight and tanning beds. Avoiding intense sun exposure and sunburns, particularly when the UV index surpasses 3, is crucial, whether at home or during sunny vacations abroad.

Also, regular self-examinations of your skin, with assistance if needed, and early medical attention if you detect any suspicious growths are important protective measures to prevent against melanoma.

Image source: Animas Surgical Hospital

Treatment and Prognosis:

Early diagnosis of melanoma allows for effective treatment, often through straightforward surgical intervention.

However, if melanoma has spread, the prognosis becomes less confident. This is why timely treatment is essential to prevent its spread. Anyone diagnosed with melanoma should have regular check-ups due to the risk of return and the increased possibility of developing any more melanomas.

Non-melanoma Skin Cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) is a common issue in Ireland, affecting approximately 1 in 6 men and 1 in 9 women throughout their lives. Over the past two decades, the incidence of NMSC in Ireland has seen a rise. Various types of NMSC exist, with the most common being basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

Skin cancer develops when skin cells receive damage over extended periods, often due to exposure to UV radiation from sunlight. Unchecked growth of these damaged cells leads to the formation of tumours or lumps in the skin. If left untreated, certain forms of NMSC can potentially spread to other areas of the body.

Luckily, early identification and treatment typically result in a complete cure for NMSC, highlighting the importance of early intervention.

Non-melanoma Risk Factors:

Factors contributing to the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) primarily revolve around UV exposure, commonly from sunlight.

  • Periodic, intense exposure to sunlight
  • Sunburns, especially in childhood
  • Use of sunbeds
  • Immunosuppression
  • Fair complexion: pale skin, blue eyes, red or blonde hair, and freckles
  • Smoking

Treatment and Prevention:

Non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) is commonly managed through surgical removal. Additionally, certain basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) and squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) may be addressed using alternative methods such as specialized creams, cryotherapy (using liquid nitrogen), curettage (scraping of the skin), or radiotherapy. Generally, the earlier the detection of skin cancer, the less invasive the treatment options become.

Preventing NMSC involves safeguarding against UV exposure by avoiding direct sunlight, wearing protective clothing, and consistently applying sunscreen. This is particularly important in Ireland from April to September and during sunny vacations abroad. Anyone with a history of NMSC should take extra caution as they are at a higher risk of developing it again.

Image source: Irish Cancer Society

If you notice changes to your skin, speak with your GP and don’t hesitate to call into Adrian Dunne Pharmacy and ask one our pharmacists for advice. You can find your local Adrian Dunne Pharmacy here.

For further information about skin cancer, you can visit the Irish Skin Foundation’s website at www.irishskin.ie or the Irish Cancer Society’s website at www.cancer.ie.