Are the Irish still dying for that killer tan?

There are 8,000 new cases of skin cancer every year. Are you doing enough to protect your skin this summer? Sharon Ni Chonchuir gets the skinny on the burning issue

BELIEVE it or not, according to Met Éireann, Ireland normally gets between 1,100 and 1,600 hours of sunshine each year. Although 1887 was the sunniest summer in the 100 years from 1881 to 1980, according to measurements made at the Phoenix Park in Dublin, 2014 has proved a pretty good summer so far.

“We don’t see the sun that often and tend to go crazy when we do,” says Dr William O’Connor at Cork’s Bon Secours Hospital who is calling on Irish people to take care when it comes to skin protection for the rest of the summer.

“Irish people burn easily,” he says. “If you’ve got red hair, fair skin, freckles or blue eyes, you can’t and won’t tan and shouldn’t even try. You will end up burnt and blistered and with an increased risk of developing cancer if you do.”

The figures back him up. There are approximately 8,000 new cases of skin cancer in Ireland every year, more than breast, lung and prostate cancer combined.

The situation is even more pronounced in Cork. The county has significantly higher rates of non-melanoma skin cancer than those of Limerick, Kerry and Waterford combined.

Dr O’Connor connects this to our occupational and recreational habits. “We have a lot of farmers, fishermen, golfers, gardeners and sailors who spend time outside,” he explains. “We also have a significant number of people who take sun holidays abroad. They may not take proper precautions against the sun.”

This is why he is backing the ‘Check Your Skin’ campaign, which aims to create a better understanding of the long-term damage caused by over-exposure to the sun. It also aims to raise awareness of the warning signs for skin cancer.

One of these is actinic keratosis (AK). These are scaly or crusty patches of skin that typically appear on the face, scalp, lips and the back of the hands. They can be elevated, rough in texture and resemble warts. Most are red but some are tan, pink or flesh coloured. If left untreated, they can advance to cancer.

People who burn easily, have fair skin, use sun beds or spend a lot of time outdoors are at particular risk of AK. 11% of Irish people are thought to have it but 94% of us are completely unaware of what it is.

86-year-old Cyril O’Driscoll from Fountainstown in Cork was until he was diagnosed six years ago. He had developed AK on the back of his neck, tips of his ears, forehead and scalp.

“I didn’t take any notice of them because they didn’t hurt,” he admits. “But my wife thought they looked scabby and nagged me to go to the doctor.”

Cyril is typical of the type of person who develops AK. It’s more common in people over 60 because there was much less public awareness of sun protection when they were young. This was definitely the case with Cyril. He was an avid sailor who spent his days on the water. “I only remember one person who wore a hat and he spent more time chasing it than wearing it,” he laughs. “And sun cream just wasn’t around. Even if it was, we probably wouldn’t have worn it.”

He was often burned, particularly on his bald head. “The sea reflects so much sunshine that you’d always feel sore after a day on the water,” he says.

Cyril didn’t realise the damage he had done for years. “This is very common,” says Dr O’Connor. “Sunburn is forgotten once it heals but repeated sun damage builds up over the years. People then think they have eczema or dermatitis, but if it’s AK and left untreated, it can lead to cancer.”

Cyril is under medical supervision to ensure this doesn’t happen. “I see my dermatologist every six months,” he says. “I always wear factor 50 and a hat. I didn’t know any better when I was younger.”

Dr O’Connor is keen to reassure people that AK is treatable. “It’s like weeds in the garden,” he says. “Spray them to get rid of them but they re-emerge elsewhere. You freeze AK off or apply cream in order to keep on top of it. There is no way of knowing which lesions will progress to cancer so it’s important to treat them all.”

It’s just as important to avoid sun damage in the first place. “Wear high factor sunscreen and reapply it often, especially if you’re swimming,” advises Dr O’Connor. “Don’t miss areas like the tops of the ears, the chest, eyelids, neck, lips and the backs of hands.” He also recommends seeking shade. “But remember that even if you’re in the shade, you can still burn from reflected rays,” he warns. “You always need to wear sunscreen.”

“Children under two should have no direct sun exposure and bear in mind that 80% of accumulative sun damage occurs before the age of 20 during the summer holidays that children often spend running around outside,” he says. “Children who are not properly protected are more likely to suffer sun damage in later life.”

Finally, everyone should check their skin once a month. “Basically look for any changes and if you have cause for concern, see a doctor,” urges Dr O’Connor.

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