Skin cancer ‘hotspot’ claims refuted

DOUBT has been cast on a new report which claims the Borders is one of three ‘hot spots’ in the UK for skin cancer.

Dr Charlotte Proby, clinical reader in dermatology at Dundee University’s School of Medicine, has been involved in skin cancer research and says the Borders, along with Tayside and the south coast of England, are all areas of concern.

Although Dr Proby has acknowledged that her findings of high incidence of skin cancer in these three areas could simply be the result of better recording of skin cancers than elsewhere, she has pointed out a number of other factors that could be playing a part.

These include the east coast’s long hours of sunshine – causing more exposure to harmful UV rays – and the use of sunbeds.

In her own area of Tayside, Dr Proby says the past 30 years has seen a fourfold increase in skin cancers. “Fair-skinned Celts, with red or fair hair, blue eyes and freckles are much more susceptible to UV damage and there is increasing evidence that the use of sunbeds has resulted in more cases of melanoma in young women,” she said this week.

“Cheap package holidays to sunny destinations are also to blame.”

Dr Proby added that melanoma is now the most common cancer in 15 to 24-year-olds in Scotland and the most common cause of a cancer-related death in young women in their 20s, and cases are continuing to rise year after year.”

Dr Proby says there is new data from Iceland, which shows a steep increase in melanomas appearing on the backs of young women since the introduction of tanning salons to the country in 1995.

“This is strong evidence that there is a link between skin cancer and sunbed use,” she explained.

For the past three years, Dr Proby has been using her £165,752 grant from the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR) to investigate more aggressive forms of skin cancer.

And she is confident that what she and her team have discovered is important in the fight against this very common cancer and says that her research would not have been possible without AICR’s backing.

“We have established that there’s a particular gene, called PTPRD, that seems to be associated with the more aggressive forms of skin cancer, that is cancers that spread to other parts of the body and can kill,” she said.

“We’ve been studying this gene which may well prove to be important for identifying and treating aggressive skin cancers in the future.”

But Dr Tim Patterson, consultant in public health medicine at NHS Borders, says he is mystified as to how Dr Proby has drawn her conclusions as far as the Borders is concerned.

“I have to say I have not seen the report she is referring to. But if she is talking about the more serious skin cancers such as malignant melanoma, then, while Scotland as a whole has seen an increase in malignant melanoma in recent years, Borders data does not reflect this trend and due to our small population and low numbers of cases our rates fluctuate considerably each year.

“Since 1985 we have had a higher rate than Scotland as a whole but for most years this has not been statistically significant.

“For the last year of published data, which was in 2008, our rates were similar to Scotland as a whole,” he said.

Dr Patterson says there are on average in the Borders around 25 cases of malignant melanoma each year but that anything from 16 to 36 cases in a single year would be considered normal for the Borders.

“So our actual trend here in the Borders is not going up at all. We are comparable on age-adjusted rates with the rest of Scotland, so I am not sure where Dr Proby is getting her data from.”

And with temperatures in the Borders set to soar into the 70s over the next few days, NHS Borders has pointed out that 60 to 80 per cent of total lifetime sun exposure occurs in the first 18 years of life.

NHS Borders is advising people to know their skin type and how long it takes to burn, pointing out this could be as little as 20 minutes.

The health board also says people should keep alert for weather reports predicting high ultraviolet levels, protect the skin and eyes by seeking shade or wearing clothing, wide brimmed hats and wrap-around sunglasses, and use sunblock generously and frequently (at least factor 15).

It also advises people not to use a sunbed unless they have been properly advised about their skin type, to never allow under-18s to use sunbeds, and learn the signs of early skin cancer. Know your moles and get it checked out if one starts to change quickly, bleeds or feels different.