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Public urged to recognise signs of potentially fatal - but preventable - melanoma

Irish young people tend to be affected more by potentially fatal skin cancer, the rates of which are increasing.

Image: dean bertoncelj via Shutterstock

LEADING IRISH and international experts are urging the public to make themselves aware of the signs of melanoma, as the number of cases of the potentially fatal form of skin cancer increase in Ireland.

Melanoma accounts for only a small percentage of total cancer deaths (1-2 per cent) but tends to affect younger people to a greater extent and, therefore, accounts for a significantly greater proportion of potential life-years-lost.

There are approximately 630 new cases of melanoma in Ireland each year, leading to an average of 110 deaths annually. Experts say the incidence of melanoma is increasing rapidly with the number of deaths per year, and is expected to reach 150 by 2020.

Increase in melanoma deaths

Dr Paul Donnellan, founder and chairman of Irish Melanoma Forum and Consultant Medical Oncologist at Galway University Hospital, told TheJournal.ie that the increased diagnoses of melanoma in Ireland was largely a phenomena.

While, awareness of skin cancer is causing more people to seek medical advice, and therefore leading to a higher number of diagnoses, that is not the whole picture, said Donnellan.

If it were simply the case that greater numbers of people were being diagnosed with melanoma – as opposed to an increase in incidences – the mortality rate for the disease should remain stable, he said. Instead, it is rising significantly.

More worryingly, those dying from melanoma tend to be of a younger age than those dying from other forms of cancer. Donellan links this to several known and possible factors, such as sun exposure and the increased use of sunbeds, family history, skin type, and suppressed immunity due to other health problems.

It is suspected the increased numbers of younger people with melanoma could be caused by increased exposure to stronger sun in childhood, possible due to the rise of cheap package holidays, Donellan says – but  the driving force behind rising mortality is not yet known for sure.

Public meeting

This evening (Thursday), a free public meeting will be held in Stanley Quek Hall, Trinity College Dublin, with the aim of educating and engaging with the public on melanoma – with discussion focusing on new medical developments in treating this disease as well as management and prevention.

Speakers will include leading international expert on melanoma, Prof Mario Sznol MD; Professor John Crown, Senator and Consultant Medical Oncologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital; Dr Patrick Ormond, Consultant Dermatologist at St James’s Hospital; and Dr Jennifer Westrup, member of the Irish Melanoma Forum’s steering committee and Consultant Medical Oncologist at UPMC Beacon Hospital.

“In many cases, melanoma is a preventable disease. Knowing how to prevent it and knowing the signs that suggest it is present is vitally important in reducing the incidence of this potentially fatal condition,” said Dr Jennifer Westrup. “Young people and their parents should be aware of the risk factors associated with melanoma.”

New developments

The Irish Melanoma Forum was established in 2011 in response to major new developments in the treatment of melanoma. Dr Donnellan, founder, said drugs like ipilimumab – which has led to remission in an extra 10 per cent of melanoma patients – and vemurafenib – which has shown extremely promising results – will be discussed during the meeting so members of the public can learn about which are suitable for them and about any potential side-effects associated with particular treatments.

For those who cannot attend the meeting, or who are concerned about melanoma, Donellan outlined a number of warning signs to watch out for:

  • Asymmetry: if a mole is not symmetrical it could be a sign that it isn’t normal
  • Border: an irregular border around the mole
  • Colour: if the colour of a mole becomes very dark or light
  • Diameter: if the mole becomes wider than the head of a pencil (rough guideline)
  • Bleeding: any bleeding should be reported to a doctor

Generally, Donnellan recommends “knowing your body” and keeping a close eye on any changes. If a person has many moles or freckles in areas they can’t see easily (eg the back) he recommends enlisting the help of a partner, close friend, or perhaps a mole-mapping service.

The free meeting will take place 6.45pm, Thursday 24 November, in the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, Trinity College, Pearse Street, Dublin 2.

Read: 794 people die each year in Europe from sunbed-induced skin cancer – research
Read: 100 deaths from melanoma every year in Ireland

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