Mapping skin cancer trends using big data

As we head into the summer months, it is a sobering statistic to learn that one in five of us will get skin cancer in our lifetimes.

Our ageing population, changing sun exposure behaviours and improvements to cancer registration are believed to be the reason why there was a 26% increase in skin cancer cases between 2013 and 2019 and is the most common diagnosed cancer in England.

The most common cause of skin cancer and premature skin ageing is exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or sunbeds, so, taking sensible precautions to protect your skin from the sun is likely to reduce your risk of developing a skin cancer in the future.

Dr Zoe Venables is a Clinical Associate Professor and Consultant Dermatologist. She has worked for our Trust for the last three years and works as Dermatology Clinical Lead for the National Disease Registration Service, which is part of NHS Digital.

She said: “Our workload in dermatology clinics has increased over the years and our work related to skin cancer treatment. Melanoma is the skin cancer that more people might know about, which often looks like a changing or new mole, but we are also seeing an increasing number of non-melanoma skin cancers, which usually appear as a lump, ulcer, scab or discoloured patch of skin.”

“It is really important to protect your skin from a young age as skin cancer is caused by the cumulative damage of sun exposure and people tend to develop problems when they get older.”

As part of her role as Clinical Associate Professor, Dr Venables is working on skin cancer epidemiology research to produce good quality data to improve awareness and support skin cancer research and prevention programmes. Her work has already discovered the growing number of non-melanoma skin cancers.

She said: “Non-melanoma skin cancer is much more common than melanoma, but if it is caught early, most people survive it and it is easily treated. Non-melanoma skin cancers are getting more common because of our ageing population. Also, the climate is getting hotter and if people are spending more time out in the sunshine, this will also have an impact.”

“During the Covid-19 pandemic we understood how important healthcare statistics are to highlight where we should focus our energy and funding for research, service funding and education. We are beginning to realise the importance of big data and its potential with Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the future.”

Sun protection tips

  • Spend time in the shade during the sunniest part of the day when the sun is at its strongest, which is usually between 11am and 3pm in the summer months.
  • Avoid direct sun exposure for babies and very young children.
  • When it is not possible to limit your time in the sunniest part of the day, keeping yourself well covered, with a hat, long sleeved clothing and sunglasses, can give you additional protection.
  • Apply at least factor 30 sunscreen liberally to exposed areas of skin. Re-apply every two hours and straight after swimming, sweating or towelling to maintain protection.

Non-melanoma skin cancers vary greatly in what they look like. They tend to appear gradually on the skin, and slowly get bigger over time. They will not go away on their own without treatment. Some possible signs include:

  • A scab or sore that won’t heal. It may also bleed occasionally
  • A scaly or crusty patch of skin that looks red or inflamed
  • A flesh coloured, pearly lump that won’t go away and appears to be growing in size
  • A lump on the skin which is getting bigger and that may be scabby
  • A growth with a pearly rim surrounding a central crater, a bit like an upturned volcano

If you are worried about your skin, contact your GP to get it checked out.

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