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Beyond summer: SA’s battle against skin cancer

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CANSA makes an urgent call for year-round vigilance as South Africans face rising risk. 

Dermatologist examining moles of patient on light background.
All ethnic and racial groups are susceptible to melanoma; however, the typical patient has a fair complexion and a tendency to burn in the sun. Shutterstock.com   

While May marked the end of autumn for South Africans, with winter fast approaching the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) stressed the importance to continue to be sunsmart throughout the year, no matter the weather conditions. 

“SA could become the skin cancer capital of the world,” says general medical practitioner Dr Donny Fick. 

According to CANSA, figures in the 2022 National Cancer Registry prove that South Africans are at a higher risk of skin cancer, with melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, one of the top five cancers in the country among men and women. CANSA stressed the importance of cancer risk reduction and early detection which applies to most types of cancer. It means adjusting lifestyle choices if necessary to lower the risk of cancer and to keep a watchful eye for warning signs that need to be checked by a medical professional. 

Melanomas develop in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour. Melanomas can develop on any skin colour and anywhere on the body, including the head, neck, eyes, under the fingernails, the genitals and the soles of the feet or palms of the hands. They can be similar in colour to a mole, have no colour at all or be slightly red. While melanomas most often develop in areas that have had exposure to the sun, such as the back, legs, arms, and face, they can also occur in areas that don’t receive much sun exposure and can show up inside the body too. 

All ethnic and racial groups are susceptible to melanoma; however, the typical patient has a fair complexion and a tendency to burn in the sun, even after a brief exposure to sunlight. Although there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to sunlight results in the development of melanoma, lesions are most commonly found on sun-exposed areas of the body. Other risk factors include the occurrence of a previous melanoma in the patient and in a close family member, that is, a parent or a sibling. 

According to Lorraine Govender, CANSA National Manager of Health Programmes, “We advocate to check your spots, it’s a highly presentable cancer, you can easily detect it on your skin.” 

CANSA also advises companies whose employees work outside in the sun, such as in the agricultural or building industries, for example, to ensure they have adequate protection against the sun. Look out for sunscreens, clothing, hats, and summer accessories that bear the CANSA Seal of Recognition. 

“Even when you are driving, you need to protect yourself,” she explained. “Certain UV rays penetrate windows.” She added that they also penetrate clouds, so you still need to wear sunscreen on overcast days. 

Dr Ficks cautioned that the sooner people start using sunscreen the better. “Protecting yourself from the sun slows down the aging process,” he said.  Govender agreed. “Sunscreen should be a mandatory part of any beauty regime for both men and women. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 20 or higher, according to skin type. 

“Men can be really bad at remembering to use sunscreen,” said Dr Fick. “Just do it,” he said, “You will thank me later.” 

In SA, the risk of melanoma seems to be increasing in people under 40, especially women. 

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF MELANOMA  

To help identify characteristics of unusual moles that may indicate melanomas or other skin cancers, think of the letters A, B, C, D, and E: 

  • Asymmetry: Halves might not match when you draw a line through the mole.  
  • Border irregularities: Edges may be scalloped or notched.  
  • Colour variations: Different shades or unconventional colours may appear.  
  • Diameter: Moles that are wider than a pencil eraser.  
  • Evolving characteristics: Encompasses any change in size, shape, colour, elevation, or new symptoms like bleeding or itching. 

 

Malignant moles vary in appearance, with some showing all the changes listed above, and others having only one or two unusual characteristics. The first sign of a melanoma is usually a new spot or an existing mole or freckle that changes in appearance. Some changes can include growing in size or evolving; edges that are irregular rather than smooth and even; a range of colours such as brown, black, blue, red, white, or light grey, and moles becoming itchy or bleeding.   

*For more information on how to reduce the risk of skin cancer, go to cansa.org.za for fact sheets on melanoma, and ways to be sunsmart. 

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