Skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK after lung, breast, bowel, and prostate. Coming in two forms, melanoma and non-melanoma, the disease is most often associated with the hot summer months when the temperature is high and so is the UV.
And yet, Doctor Paul Banwell of The Banwell Clinic says skin cancer is as big a threat during the winter months as it is during the summer; a claim which may come as a surprise when skin exposure during this time is kept to a minimum.
The reason for this is multifaceted as Doctor Banwell explained: “We are still at risk from skin cancer during the winter months. Even when it’s cold or overcast, UV rays can damage our skin.
“UVA rays remain constant throughout the year and can get through clouds and fog. Skin cancer is now [one of] the most common forms of cancer in the UK and 16,000 cases are now diagnosed each year. Whilst UVB is the main culprit, UVA is an issue throughout the year and there is evidence that infrared also contributes to skin cancer.”
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It’s not like the weather, with its overcast skies, drizzle, and occasional hale is much protection either. In fact, Doctor Banwell says the notion that weather protects is a misnomer.He said: “The weather outside certainly shouldn’t give us the impression we are protected from the sun.
“Use of sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) has been shown to reduce the incidence of skin cancer as well as cause less ageing and therefore I advocate the daily use of sunscreen throughout the year.”
As a way to explain this, Doctor Banwell used the example of winter athletes applying sunscreen to their exposed faces: “Some winter [sports] take place in high altitudes and the sun’s UV rays are more intense and the snow reflects and magnifies them.
“This can really increase the chances of developing skin cancer during the winter and it is vital to wear sunscreen and also sunglasses to protect the eyes from harmful UV rays. Basically, if you’re outside, you’re still at risk for skin damage whatever the season.”
While the sun may not be out in full force during the winter, some may be tempted to expose themselves to sunbeds in order to obtain a winter tan.
This is also something doctor Banwell advises against as the use of these sunbeds comes with their own bevy of risks: “I urge people to avoid sunbeds to try and build a winter tan. Intense exposure via sunbed use also dramatically increases risk of skin cancer formation (between 30-70 percent) and thus avoidance of sunbeds is mandatory.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding about sunbeds. I say categorically it does not give protective tans. Sunbeds bring on premature aging, wrinkling of the skin, eye problems and a high risk of skin cancer.”
Furthermore, there is another factor to consider with regard to skin cancer during the winter: the timing of the cancer in question.
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Skin cancer is not like sunburn, it does not develop instantaneously. The mutations required to cause cancer occur over a long period of time and sustained exposure to UV rays.
It is for this reason that it is not surprising that skin cancer may develop during the winter; the mutations can cause spots to change or arise at any time.
What is the most dangerous type of skin cancer?
Skin cancer can be split into two types: melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer as it can spread from the skin to other parts of the body, a process known as metastasis.
The NHS say melanomas “can happen anywhere on the body, but the most commonly affected areas are the back in men and the legs in women”.
What are the main symptoms of melanoma?
The main symptoms of melanoma are often the change in an existing mole or the development of a new one.
The NHS says: “Normal moles are generally round or oval, with a smooth edge, and usually no bigger than 6mm in diameter. But size is not a sure sign of melanoma. A healthy mole can be larger than 6mm in diameter, and a cancerous mole can be smaller than this.”
It is advised that patients should see a GP if they notice changes in a mole, patch of skin, or freckle if they occur over a few weeks or months.Having seen a GP, a skin check may be performed by a nurse who will assess all spots to double check for any abnormalities.
As with all other forms of cancer, the sooner it is checked and/or diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin and the more effective it will be.