When things get hot

The month of May marks the start of a time of the year when the sun and the heat are to the forefront. It is a time when overcoats and jackets are banished to the wardrobe and strappy dresses, bathing costumes and sandals are brought out from winter storage. Trips to the swimming-pool and the beach are now essential. Summer is in full heat.

Experts do not deny the benefit of the sun if the necessary precautions are taken. But, like many other things, if taken to the extremes, the sun turns almost immediately into a health risk. This is when cancer of the skin or melanoma comes into the picture. This is a malignant tumour of the skin with very special characteristics, both from the clinical and the evolutive point of view. It is worth explaining, however, that the appearance of a melanoma is not necessarily linked to exposure to the sun, as genetic and hormonal tendencies must also be taken into account. However, prevention of this type of cancer depends on the elimination of risk factors such as the sun.

When the skin is exposed to ultra-violet light, the amount of melanin increases to protect the body from this excess radiation – that is how tanning occurs. Without this protection the skin would burn and become covered with blisters. What can happen after long exposure to the sun is that a reddish patch might seem which gets darker with time: this is the beginning of a possible melanoma if the melanin cells become cancerous.

A melanoma can be detected through a series of unique symptoms. Any type of change in the pigmentation of the skin should be noted, including a darkening of the colour. It is also important to see whether these patches start bleeding, whether they hurt or itch, whether they are scaly or whether there are changes in texture or size. The importance of noting these changes, no matter how small they are, is vital. The next step is a visit to a specialist for a routine check-up.

A melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin tumour as it has the highest mortality rate: in fact, the number of deaths attributed to these primary tumours (not as a result of metastasis) has risen in recent years by an average of three per cent annually in the case of men and one per cent in the case of women.

Although it is not easy to define the type of person who is most likely to develop these tumours, doctors agree that people with fair skins or a tendency to burn or who come out in freckles are more sensitive to the harmful effects of the sun and must take greater precautions. At the same time, the greatest incidence of the start of a melanoma is found among children and teenagers.

The parts of the body where melanomas are most likely to form are highly localised. Special checks should be made on the back (at waist-level), the legs (between the knees and the ankles in the case of women), the scalp, natural orifices, such as the mouth, and the hands and feet. In all cases the tumours can be cut out by a surgeon.

Specialists offer a series of recommendations to prevent the appearance of a melanoma. In the first place, intense, intermittent sun-bathing should be avoided. Children and teenagers should be especially well protected from the most harmful UV radiation, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The wearing of sunglasses, hats and shirts or blouses is essential, as is the use of high protection factor creams for the exposed skin and lips. This must also be borne in mind on the ski slopes.

Various studies have shown that our skin has a certain age, which does not necessarily coincide with the chronological age. Thus, it has been established that a person can withstand 50,000 hours of sunshine throughout their life. This sunshine must be taken in doses so that the greatest is never reached.

Apart from the risk of skin cancer the sun also causes premature wrinkles.

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