Sunshine can be a secret killer as Forth Valley sees cancer epidemic

Slip, slap and slop to stay safe in the sun
Slip, slap and slop to stay safe in the sun

As the mercury rises and we spend more time outside, it’s easy to get too much sun and end up burned.

It’s something Leigh Smith, chairwoman of Melanoma Action Support Scotland knows only too well.

Leigh was diagnosed with melanoma 34 years ago when she was pregnant and is lucky to still be alive.

Leigh said: “Everyone knows that too much sun exposure is dangerous, but they think it will never happen to them.

“Well it can. It’s becoming more and more common and is the most diagnosed cancer in people aged 15-34. And the rates are continuing to rise.”

Last year, 1200 people in Scotland were diagnosed with the most serious skin cancer malignant melanoma, 69 of them in the Forth Valley area.

Rates of non-melanoma skin cancers are also on the rise and while this type of cancer doesn’t spread as easily, it does need to be cut out and can leave unattractive scars.

Leigh said: “That is the irony, people sunbathe or use sunbeds to look more attractive and healthy.

“In reality sun exposure causes wrinkles and if you get skin cancer, you will be left with unattractive scars – if you survive at all.”

In the past 10 years cases of skin cancers in Scotland have risen by 30 per cent.

Scots tend to be fair skinned and package holidays and sunbed use provides a short, sharp shock of UV rays – the worst kind of exposure when it comes to developing cancer.

Consultant dermatologist Dr Colin Morton has been working within Forth Valley for the past two decades and says when he started, skin cancer referrals made up ten per cent of his workload. Today it is 50 per cent.

Dr Morton said: “We are experiencing a skin cancer epidemic in the Forth Valley area.

“Because the area does not see a lot of sunshine, when we do, people lie out in it all day and burn.

Similarly, when they go on holiday abroad, there is the mentality that you need to come home with a tan.

A tan isn’t healthy, it signifies you’ve been burned and the skin is trying to protect itself.”

As a result of the huge number of cases, Forth Valley now offers a photo triage clinic.

GPs can refer patients to the clinic every Tuesday at Camelon Health Clinic to have a medical photographer take a picture of any growth, mole or lesion they are concerned about.

A dermatologist will then examine the photo and decide on the appropriate course of action.

Dr Morton said: “There are so many referrals this is the only way to cope. Around nine out of ten concerned patients won’t have skin cancer and are just harmless changes in skin down to aging but the number of confirmed cases is still on the rise.”

Dr Morton has spoken on dermatology in Australia where the sun safety message has been well-promoted for a long time.

He added: “I think the message is starting to get across here too and I hope the figures will start to decrease.

“I see more people covered up and in the shade on sunny days now.

“We’re not saying you need to be pasty all year, far from it, there are so many excellent fake tans available now and they are far better for your skin health.”

Slip slop slap and make sure you stay protected this summer

Health experts agree that too much sun exposure is dangerous, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go outside.

By covering up, applying plenty of high factor SPF, wearing sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat, you can enjoy the summer without worrying about getting burned.

You can check the UV index daily at to find out how strong the sun is.

The UK index ranges from 0-7, with the higher the number the more risk.

With good weather now making it into the forecasts, meteorologists have predicted it could get up to five or six over the next few weeks – meaning fair skinned people should not be outside without wearing a SPF for even a few minutes.

Adults should wear a SPF of 15 or above and children SPF 50. Babies should not be in direct sunlight at all as burning as a young child has been linked to an increased chance of developing skin cancer later in life.

While getting too much sun is dangerous, so is not getting enough.

Our bodies need vitamin D for healthy bones and it is produced from having a balanced diet and getting a small amount of sunshine.

Fair skinned people only need 10 minutes of sun exposure on their face and arms each day to meet the recommended exposure and darker skinned or those who tan easily, needing slightly longer.

During the winter months it can be difficult for Scots to get the recommended vitamin D levels.

Older people, children and pregnant or breast feeding mothers are most at risk, and a vitamin D supplement can be prescribed.

Consultant dermatologist Dr Colin Morton said: “Common sense is needed in regards to getting enough UV rays for vitamin D to be produced.

“Yes, we need a little sunlight but only in moderation.

“Never allow your skin to burn and be sensible in strong sunlight as skin cancer is now one of the most common cancers in the world.”