Cases of malignant melanoma, which causes the majority of skin cancer related deaths, have almost tripled in Northern Ireland since the mid-1980s, research from Queen’s University has shown.
Figures released by the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry (NICR) at the university show that in 2006, 254 cases of the skin cancer were recorded — compared with just 80 in 1984.
Patients tend to be younger than those diagnosed with other cancers, with a third of those under 50 at the time of diagnosis and nine under 25.
NICR has worked with local clinicians and the Northern Ireland Cancer Network (NICaN) to produce the report entitled the Care of Patients with Malignant Melanoma of Skin in Northern Ireland 2006.
It documents the care that patients received, including the hospitals they attended and the number of surgeons who performed operations.
Other findings were that melanoma is more common in women than men in Northern Ireland.
In men, 70% of melanomas were on the head, neck and trunk areas, while in women almost half of the lesions occurred on their legs and feet. Unlike other cancers, it is seen more often in more affluent populations than those considered deprived.
The most common symptom of melanoma is an increase in size of the lesion, followed by a change in colour. Patients also reported that the lesion had nodules or bled, as well as itching or ulceration.
The good news is that people in Northern Ireland have among the best survival rates for the cancer in Europe, with 98.8% of patients alive one year after being diagnosed.
Director of the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry Dr Anna Gavin said: “The figures are alarming and reflect increased exposure of skin to damaging UV rays from the sun and sunbeds. Sunburn in childhood is a particular risk factor.
“The report notes and welcomes the planned introduction for a regional multidisciplinary team meeting to discuss and standardise the management patients.”
Dr Maureen Walsh, regional melanoma pathologist and chair of the NICaN Melanoma Group, said: “Over a fifth of patients had significant symptoms for over a year which points to the need for professionals to focus even more on highlighting the early signs of melanoma.”