Melanoma skin cancer incidence rates are increasing. As the fifth most common cancer in the UK, rates of melanoma have risen by one third in the past decade, and while it is the least common type of skin-based cancer, it is the deadliest.
And this is even more true for men than women. Skin cancer deaths in men have risen by 219% since the 1970s, compared to an increase of 76% in women. We are still searching for exactly why the prevalence of melanoma in men continues to increase and while differences in male and female physiology can influence incidence, the attitudes and societal expectations that govern male behaviour may prove key to reducing melanoma incidence and death in men.
Melanoma occurs when our melanocyte cells (which produce the pigment that colours our skin, hair and eyes) undergo a change that causes them to grow and multiply in an uncontrolled way.
This can occur anywhere on the body, but is more likely to develop in areas of skin that are exposed to the sun and is predominantly caused by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation(UV), which damages our DNA. Manifestations of melanoma can vary; the first sign of melanoma is often the change in the appearance of an existing mole, but it can also be the appearance of a new mole. In many cases, these moles have an irregular border and are uneven in colour with more than one colour present.
By the age of fifty, men are more likely than women to develop melanoma; by the age of 65, men’s risk of developing melanoma is twice that of women, and triples by the age of 80. This translates to ~1,400 UK deaths in men from melanoma each year, compared to ~980 women.
Yet, studies demonstrate a 97% five-year survival rate for early stage melanoma, meaning that if we can catch the disease early, men’s chances of survival are much better. So why are mortality rates in men still increasing?
As 86% of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV from the sun, sun protection is key to reducing risk, and the UK government, media outlets and cancer charities often extoll the need to regularly apply sunscreen.
Men may spend less time sunbathing than women, but from a young age they’re more encouraged to spend time outdoors than women. As men grow up, they also tend to participate in outdoor activities and are typically less likely to wear sunscreen than women, exposing them to intermittent bouts of the UV radiation that is most attributed to melanoma risk.
Men strictly adhering to traditional male norms are less likely to use sunscreen regularly or demonstrate tanning knowledge; potentially due to a view that sun safety is a feminine concern, and at odds with traditional male roles.
Reasons men have cited for their general dislike of sunscreen include:
Compounding this, men’s general skin awareness is lower than women’s, fewer men know about certain sun-related facts than women, and they are also less likely to inspect their skin for lesions or deformities, potentially reducing their chance of self-identifying melanoma symptoms.
While projections suggest there could be 26,500 new melanoma cases each year in the UK by 2040, with the innovation of various skin screening techniques, and by strictly adhering to preventative measures, these cases can be prevented or caught early.
By taking the initiative to apply sunscreen, wearing long-sleeved clothing, putting on a hat, and regularly checking their skin, men can reduce their risk of developing the disease or identify an abnormal legion early.
Early stage melanoma is treatable, and while prevention is still better than the cure, if you notice an abnormal skin changes, talk to your GP and ask for a skin screening as part of your routine men’s health check. It’s not embarrassing. It’s lifesaving!