We know more about cancer than at any other point in human history, especially skin cancer, which is often viewed as a preventable form of the disease. If that’s true, why are people in the U.K. over the age of 65 getting diagnosed with malignant melanoma at more than seven times the rate of similarly aged people 40 years ago? According to nonprofit Cancer Research U.K., it boils down to the exploding popularity of packaged vacations, and the desire to have tanned skin.
On average, 5,700 U.K. retirees are diagnosed with malignant melanoma each year. By contrast, that number was right around 600 per year in the 1970s. Now, men are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease than their fathers were, while women are five times more likely than their mothers. Surely, increased awareness and improved diagnostic practices have contributed to the rapid increase, but you can also thank the cheap vacation packages that cropped up beginning in the 1960s.
“I was part of the generation where package holidays became affordable and you could go abroad nearly every year,” she said. “I don’t think there was much understanding at the time about the impact that too much sun can have on your risk of getting skin cancer. And I loved the sun but suffered quite a bit of sunburn over the years,” said Sue Deans, a 69-year old retired teacher who was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 2000 and then again in 2007.
It’s not just the elderly who are at risk of skin cancer. In fact, it’s the second-most common form of cancer in young adults (ages 15-34). Overall it’s the fifth most common cancer in the U.K., with over 13,000 cases each year. Over 2,000 people die from it each year.
“It’s worrying to see melanoma rates increasing at such a fast pace, and across all age groups. It is very important for people to take care of their skin in the sun. It is also important for them to keep an eye on their skin and seek medical opinion if they see any changes to their moles, or even to normal areas of skin. Melanoma is often detected on men’s backs and women’s legs but can appear on any part of the body,” said Professor Richard Marais, Cancer Research UK’s skin cancer expert.
The researchers are attempting public outreach to teach citizens that it’s possible to enjoy the sun while reducing your risk of cancer. Sun damage is cumulative, they say, so it’s vitally important to avoid burns now, especially if you’ve had them in the past. Always wear protection, ideally in the form of shirts and hats that can directly block the sun. For exposed areas, be sure to regularly apply sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher.