Cancer statistics show UV light exposure is now the third most common preventable cause of cancer after smoking and obesity. Over the past decade, the incidence of melanoma has increased by 50% in the UK.
As GPs we are slowly winning the battle with tobacco and have at least started the war on obesity, but UV exposure has yet to even get a box to tick for QOF.
As someone with Fitzpatrick skin type 1, I am more than a little aware of the risks of excess UV exposure. As a young child in the seventies, my parents were of the generation that believed the success of a seaside holiday was directly proportional to the area of skin burned lobster red at the end of the week.
As a consequence I now have a lot of sun damage and cannot venture out on a sunny day for more than a few minutes without liberal application of factor-50 suncream and a hat.
As a child in the seventies, the success of a seaside holiday was proportional to the area of skin burned lobster red
I am still amazed at the general lack of awareness about UV exposure and malignant melanoma and the number of people who still think getting a suntan is a good thing. Of particular concern is the proliferation of tanning booths, or ‘skin cancer stores’ as I like to think of them.
It seems incredible that we live in an age when a teacher has to do a risk assessment before taking a group of teenage schoolchildren for a walk on a beach, and yet anyone over 18 can pay to expose themselves to almost unlimited amounts of cancer-inducing radiation on any high street.
Greater regulation of tanning booths and increased awareness of the dangers of UV radiation would certainly help to slow the rise in incidence of skin cancers, but ultimately, as with tobacco, we have to make getting a tan unfashionable.
One of the tactics we employed in encouraging teenage girls to stop smoking was to point out tobacco smoke makes your hair smell, your skin age and your teeth yellow. For this group these messages had more impact than statistics about cancer.
Similarly with skin cancer, rather than us GPs bleating on to our patients about covering up in the sun, the best thing we could do is encourage some celebrities to lead the call with a campaign with a silly name like ‘erase the rays’ or something.
So soap stars, over to you.
Dr David Turner is a GP in west London