The little pimple that was a sign of a big disease

Leo Swift at his home in Clonmel. Pic: John D Kelly

The seemingly innocuous spot on Leo Swift’s face was skin cancer, probably caused by exposure to sun while gardening. Irish people forget that UV radiation is high here between March and September, says Áilín Quinlan

WHEN retired hairdresser, Leo Swift, discovered a little spot on his face, last winter, he didn’t think much about it.

“It was like a pimple, but with a dark top, and it was where I normally shave, so I thought it wasn’t healing because of me shaving the area,” says the Tipperary man.

But the little spot, beside his ear, didn’t go away.

Eventually, his wife advised him to get it checked.

Leo wasn’t overly bothered, but during a consultation with his GP, about something unrelated, the eagle-eyed doctor remarked on it, and touched it.

His advice?

Get it seen immediately.

And he was correct, because, as 74-year-old Leo was to discover, that unassuming little bump was a basal-cell carcinoma — a type of skin cancer, and one of the 10,000 cases of skin cancer diagnosed in this country every year.

From March until September, we should protect our skin from exposure to ultraviolent radiation, but, because of the grey Irish skies and lack of sunshine, we assume that there’s no need.

Most basal-cell carcinomas are caused by long-term exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight — and Leo was an enthusiastic gardener, who spent many hours tending to his plants in the large garden at his home outside Clonmel.

He saw a consultant plastic surgeon, and the spot was removed under local anaesthetic some weeks ago: “It turned out to be a basal-cell carcinoma, and it was caused by sun exposure,” says Leo, who loves the sun and his annual sun holiday, and the many hours he spends working in his garden.

“It’s very important to be careful and get things like this checked.

“If I saw something like this on my skin again, I’d get it checked more quickly.”

Irish people are complacent about the sun and its impact on the skin, says consultant plastic surgeon, Jenny Lynch, who is attached to the Mater Private Hospital in Cork: “Irish people assume they’re not at risk, because of the lack of blue skies and hot, yellow sun in this country, yet we have 10,000 new skin cancers in Ireland every year.”

Furthermore, says Lynch, over the past 20 years skin cancer rates in this country have risen 3% annually, which adds up to a 50% increase in 20 years.

Evidence suggests that 70% of people aged over the age of 55 have some form of skin cancer, she says:

“It may be very early-stage and very treatable, but it is pre-cancerous, which means that if you leave it untreated, it could become cancer.

“The message I need to get across is that UV radiation damages your skin in a chronic way,” she warns, adding that certain groups of people are more at risk, because they spend more time outdoors: farmers, fishermen, and those with hobbies, such as golfing, gardening, hiking and sailing.

There are two types of skin cancer. The first is the non-melanoma skin cancer, which appears in the form of crusty, scaly, weepy growths on the skin, which do not heal. These usually occur on sun-exposed areas, like the face, ears, neck, or back of the hand.

The second group is melanoma — people will notice a change in the colour, size, shape of a mole, which becomes itchy, sensitive, or starts to bleed.

“The bottom line is that, between March and September, UV levels in Ireland are high and we need to protect out skin during that time,” says Lynch. “Your skin is the biggest organ in your body and you have to mind it! It’s important to protect your skin between March and September,” she says.

Lynch recommends using a good skin-care-protection product, ideally a moisturising cream that has a built-in sun-protection factor (spf) of 30 to 50.

Secondly, she advises wearing a sun hat that has a brim all the way around, rather than the popular, baseball-style cap, because it gives protection to the ears, neck, temple, and forehead.

“Skin cancer is a real risk in Ireland, because, irrespective of the lack of blue skies and high temperatures, there are high UV radiation levels between these months.”

If you’re regularly exposed to high UV radiation levels, it will catch up with you in your fifties and sixties: “Because we don’t have the hot, yellow sun and the blue skies, we’re lulled into a false sense of security in Ireland, but we have to change that cultural belief,” Lynch warns.

“Although the vast majority of the 10,000 cases we see are both early and treatable, people need to be more aware of the risks, because, as a group of people, we are definitely at risk and it’s our pale, Celtic skins that puts us at risk.”

Basal-cell carcinoma is a skin cancer which often appears as a bump on the skin, though it can take other forms. It usually occurs on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun, such as the face and the neck. Most basal-cell carcinomas are believed to result from long-term exposure to the ultra-violet radiation in sunlight.

Avoiding the sun, and using sun-block, may help protect against the condition.


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