Skin Cancer FAQs
Women are more likely to get skin cancer than men. But men are more likely to die from it.
What is skin cancer?
It is cancer that begins in the skin. There are two types:
- non-melanoma - cancer that develops slowly on the upper layers of the skin. These are more common but less serious.
- melanoma - these cancers are more serious and can spread to other parts of the body.
How serious is it?
Survival rates are improving but skin cancer especially melanoma can kill if it is not caught quickly.
Six people die every day in the UK from melanoma and 1.5 people a day from non-melanoma — men die more often than women.
The problem is that we are increasingly likely to develop skin cancer. Melanoma rates have increased 400% since the 1970s. This is the fastest rise of any major cancer in the UK.
It also affects men of all ages - rates are increasing among both younger and older men.
How do you spot skin cancer?
Keep an eye on your moles. You have umpteen moles and marks on your skin. It’s important to know how to spot when one of them has turned cancerous. The NHS have developed a checklist called the ABCDE:
- A - asymmetrical. Doe the mole have two distinct halves or an irregular shape?
- B - border – does the mole have a notched or ragged border?
- C - colours – is the mole a mix of two or more colours?
- D - diameter – is the mole larger than 6mm (1/4 inch) in diameter?
- E - enlargement or evolution – has the mole changed its appearance or size over time?
If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, see your GP. There’s only one thing between death and survival: early diagnosis.
Where are you most likely to get a melanoma?
Men are most likely to develop a melanoma on the chest or back (women on the legs).
Why has there been such an increase in skin cancer?
Mainly we’re getting more sun. Rates have always been higher in sunnier areas such as the south-west of England. (The number of new cases in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset is double the England average.) And skin cancer is one of the few cancers you’re more likely to get if you’re rich than poor.
Exposure to ultraviolet light (UV) is the main cause of the disease. The sun is our main source of UV so changing our behaviour slightly can reduce our risk enormously.
Stay out of the sun?
Some sunlight is good for you - it boosts vitamin D - but sun-bathing should be kept to a minimum.
Think about other places you might be exposed to the sun:
- driving (80% of UV gets through the average car window)
- at work (see David’s story below)
Tanning devices and sun beds also increase your risk. (They can be even worse than the sun as the radiation is more concentrated.)
Your personal risk depends on your family history. Malignant melanoma risk is doubled in people with a family history of the same disease.
It also depends on your skin and hair type.
- Malignant melanoma risk is 57% higher in people with blue eyes than with brown eyes, for example.
- It is 200% higher in red/red-blonde hair, compared with dark-haired people.
As a rule, the more freckles/moles you have the lighter your skin type and the more you should stay out of the sun.
How do I protect myself?
- Remember, the sun is at its hottest between 11am and 3pm.
- Don’t burn. Each time you do, you increase your risk of future cancer.
- Cover up. Many men protect themselves with hats, sunglasses and T-shirts (not too thin as UV can get through thin cotton). If you’re exposed to a lot of sun at work your employers should help out with protective equipment.
- Avoid sun-beds and other tanning devices
- Check your moles
Any advice on sunscreen?
If you use sunscreen, the NHS say to make sure it is suitable for your skin type and blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. They recommend a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Reapply every two hours and use waterproof sunscreen if in the water.
What’s it like to have a melanoma?
David was diagnosed with malignant melanoma on his face after his dentist persuaded him to get a strange-looking mole checked out. He said: ’I never really thought about the possibility of getting skin cancer, even though I’m fair skinned and burn easily – and I think many men are the same.
'I’m not a sun worshipper, but as a construction site worker I spend about 40 per cent of my working life outdoors. The company I worked for said we had to wear T shirts and long trousers to help protect our skin, but it was still easy to get caught out and forget the strength of the sun sometimes.'
What’s the treatment?
Surgery. The NHS spends a fortune on skins cancer care in hospitals - about £95million in 2014. This is mostly to cut out cancers and do skin grafts and flaps to cover up the damage. Best avoided.
In England, hospital admissions for skin cancer rose by a third in the five years to 2011.
David had surgery to remove the melanoma from the side of his face leaving him with a large scar and stretched skin. He says now: 'Whatever they might think, men don’t look like wimps if they use sun protection and they certainly don’t look good resembling a boiled lobster.
'I am definitely more aware of protecting my skin from sunburn now, and always remind my mates to put on sunscreen, stick a cap on and keep an eye on their skin. I’m lucky that my melanoma was spotted early but the disease can be deadly.’
Where can I find out more?
- The NHS has information on both melanoma and non-melanoma types
- Cancer Research UK
- Sun Smart from CRUK
Date of last review 02/09/14
Date of next review 02/09/17
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