Don’t forget the sunscreen

Used to living in a country with plenty of sunshine and beautiful beaches, we often break basic rules of sun protection, with well-known, if not immediate, consequences. And the demand for fashionably bronzed skin has contributed to the increase in the incidence of melanoma, a malignant – and the most aggressive – form of skin cancer. «The incidence of melanomas has risen with the years,» an assistant professor of dermatology at Athens University’s Medical School, Andreas Katsabas, told Kathimerini. «It is indicative that in 1935, the likelihood of someone with white skin developing melanoma was one in 1,500 people. Now, it’s one in 100 people, while the American Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that one in 50 people will be getting the disease by 2010.» Melanoma accounts for 1.2 percent of all cancers, with 70,000 cases yearly. The state of Queensland in Australia has the largest number of new cases annually, while in the country as a whole, melanoma is the fourth most common cancer occurring in both sexes. Katsabas noted that the increase in cases is chiefly linked to changes in the behavior of people under the sun. «In the old days, white skin was considered beautiful, and so people avoided the sun. Later – and Coco Chanel was responsible for this – dark, bronzed skin became socially acceptable and beautiful. As a result, women were more likely to have melanomas than men. Studies have shown that in Europe, 12 women are afflicted by the disease for every six men in 100,000 inhabitants. For women aged 25-29, it is in fact the most common form of cancer, and for women aged 30-34, the second most common – after breast cancer. «The thinning of the ozone layer, a phenomenon of the last decade, is, for now, a relatively minor contributory factor to the increase in skin cancer. But it will certainly play an increasingly important role in the future, since the results of exposure to dangerous sunrays do not appear immediately. «Something which must be emphasized is that one of the highest risk factors for developing melanoma is sunburn during childhood and adolescence. Indeed, over 2-3 cases of sunburn before the age of 20 triple or quintuple the chances of getting skin cancer as an adult.» Something which must also be stressed is that occasional exposure to sunrays also counts, and not only the aggregate number of hours within a lifetime. A Greek city-dweller who works all year long in an office and sits from morning to night on the beach during the few days in which he has a vacation may be in more danger than a farmer who is obliged to be constantly in the sun. Timely diagnosis Despite it being the most aggressive form of skin cancer, melanoma can be easily treated if diagnosed in time. Campaigns to inform people and raise their awareness over the last few years resulted in melanomas being discovered in their early stages and thus reduced the mortality rates, from 85 percent at the beginning of the last century to 50 percent in the 1950s and 15-20 percent today. Women are especially aware of the dangers. Although they are more often afflicted with the condition, they nevertheless have a better survival rate than men. As Katsabas said, «The chances of being able to control melanomas are high, since apart from visual examination, doctors can also use dermatoscopes, which give a clearer picture.» Diagnoses are confirmed with biopsies. Melanomas are treated surgically with the excision of the tumor and as much surrounding area as necessary for safety’s sake. How much is removed depends on the size of the lesion. Frequently, the operation is accompanied by chemotherapy or a special course of drugs. «Operations are not carried out when the melanoma is in an advanced stage and intervention would not achieve anything,» said Katsabas. Within the framework of raising people’s awareness of skin cancer, a European Melanoma Day has been established over the last three years, during which dermatologists of the participating countries examine people for free in order to spot melanomas. This year in Greece, the free examination of moles lasted for one whole week, and, according to Katsabas, was hugely successful, both in terms of doctor participation and in the examinations of people, who numbered some 4-5,000. Skin changes to watch out for Melanomas are tumors that can be easily located by the patient upon self-examination. «What, first and foremost, should draw our attention is any change in the appearance of a mole,» said Andreas Katsabas, a professor of dermatology. In particular, suspicious dark skin lesions or moles are those which grow (a melanoma is over 6 mm in diameter) and change color. A melanoma shows color variations, with a complex or uneven distribution (apart from brown there may be combinations of red, grey, white, pink and black). Other signs to be aware of are changes in the shape of a mole, when it starts bleeding without having suffered any form of injury, and when it starts sprouting satellite moles. These changes do not necessarily mean the presence of skin cancer, but they should be checked by a dermatologist. Women are much more likely to develop melanomas on their legs, while men are more likely to find them on their chests.

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