The melanoma epidemic? Don't panic... it's all a terrible mistake
By Professor Sam Shuster
Summer is a marvellous time. It's when we can all enjoy light and warmth, eat gorgeous seasonal foods and get the chance to wear those colourful clothes we've collected during the rest of the year. And, of course, it's also holiday time. All because of the sun, the glorious sun. No wonder the ancients worshiped sun-gods! But in recent years our delight in the sun has been clouded by bullying health warnings. Repeatedly, we are told by the health czars to avoid the sun and never get a tan.
Don't cover up all summer: Some exposure to the sun is good for you
Health organisations that should know better, but rarely do, would have us shun the all-too-short glory of our summer days. Instead, we must cover our arms, wear hats and hide ourselves under a chemical burka of sun-cream.
Next, they'll even be ordering us to shut our curtains during the hours of daylight! All this is because of fear of the dreaded big C: cancer.
As a result, the killjoys spread their terrifying message, and parents are made to feel unreasonably guilty if they as much as let their children out in the sun unprotected for a minute or two. But if all this miserable propaganda has got you scared and worried, you shouldn't be. Because the evidence is that the message promoted by the anti-sun brigade isn't true. Indeed, the great sun scare that would drive us to live our summers in darkness is just a myth that's grown from a bad piece of medical science.
So it's time to lay out the facts:
There's no doubt that years of exposure to strong sun wrinkles the skin (as smoking did for the late novelist Beryl Bainbridge), because it loses its elasticity as fibres of collagen - the protein that supports the skin - link together.
But the ultra-violet rays from the sun do not speed up true ageing, which is a completely different process caused by the loss of collagen over the years, which makes skin thinner and saggy.This ageing loss occurs at the same rate of one per cent a year whether your skin is exposed to the sun or whether it isn't. And it happens at the same rate for both men and women.
The problem is that nature isn't politically correct, and unfairly provides women with 15 per cent less skin collagen than men - the equivalent of 15 years worth of ageing! - so the effects are far more noticeable. Of course we can live with wrinkles, but what about cancer? Fortunately, the facts are absolutely clear - and they aren't the ones used by doctors who create panic with the figure of 84,000 new cases of skin cancers a year in the UK.
What they don't explain is that almost all of these so-called skin 'cancers' don't spread or kill; in fact, they are not really cancers at all. Instead, these mild forms of skin cancer - what doctors call basal cell and squamous carcinomas - are benign tumours, something quite different.
Calling them 'cancer' was a wretched historical error and this incorrect name should be abandoned before more people are hurt or DIE by it. Not so fast, says the anti-sun brigade. There is another kind of cancer, malignant melanoma. And, true enough, that can be vicious: the smallest of black spots can spread and kill. But don't panic, that outcome is rare, and the melanoma scare is just as phony as the other sun-scare stories. According to the scaremongers, there has been a great increase in these 'melanomas' in recent years, supposedly caused by the sun.
The puzzle has been why this has not been accompanied by the expected increase in deaths from them. We now know the reason is that they aren't really melanomas at all: it's all a horrible mistake. The mistake happened because sunlight makes moles grow, and in pale-skinned people this often gets mistaken for true melanoma. This kind of misdiagnosis, which began in sunny Australia, soon spread to feed the phony melanoma epidemic elsewhere.
And it continued because of fear of litigation if the real thing was missed in the doctor's surgery, and because screening programmes artificially increase false-positive diagnoses.
The big mistake was that the idea that sun exposure causes melanoma went public before it was proved. (In fact, we don't know what causes melanoma.) This erroneous idea was then supported by nonsense 'research' of the sort we read about daily: first we're told standing on the left leg can lead to cancer of the right testicle, then it's the right leg and left testicle; finally new studies show that it's your partner's leg, not yours. And that story lasts for a few days when it is replaced by yet another study of whether red wine is good or bad for you.
Such daily absurdities are typical products of 'descriptive epidemiology' - this is a bastard discipline that counts disease numbers, instead of studying the disease itself. (The problem is if you don't understand that most of the tumours reported as 'melanomas' are not actually melanomas, then your numbers are deeply flawed.)
This type of numerical manipulation has single-handedly destroyed clinical science. It has made such a shambles of melanoma that every single one of its claims is suspect: it has not been shown that UV or sunburn is the cause, that children are more susceptible, or that sun beds are dangerous and sun-screens preventative.
But health advice often bears little relation to the truth, so off went the thoughtless warnings about sun avoidance, and watching for black spots that enlarge, darken, bleed or itch - a crazy idea because we all have spots that do just that without them being cancerous at all.
Anyway, as there's no epidemic of deaths from skin cancer, the risk of spoiling your life by constant worry is far greater than the small chance of finding something that needs treatment. There are very good reasons to ignore these warnings.
Suntan is an evolutionary device: it protects against burning. The anti-solar brigade's claim that it indicates skin damage is a measure of their biological naivety. A suntan is just a sign of increased pigment - melanin - in the skin and is a natural biological response to the sun, not a sign of skin damage.
So don't keep yourself and your children out of the sun; far better to develop a healthy tan without burning. Sunshine is the dynamo for vitamin D production. Without it your bones will crack, as those practising sun avoidance have found.
Although the profound effect of sun on the immune system is a mystery, it is powerful enough to control many skin diseases. And there's a new chapter in the cancer story, now that epidemiologists have done a UV-turn and claim that sun exposure actually protects against many cancers, including melanoma - a benefit they now say far outweighs the risks that they'd previously claimed!
Finally, there's the happy effect of sun exposure on well-being; it makes you look good and feel good, an effect similar to anti-depressive treatment. What more can you want? Having fun in the sun has been badly clouded by the pretence that sun exposure is a dangerous habit. It isn't; solar cancer has been massively exaggerated and sun avoidance will break more bones than bad habits. So forget the dark stories and go out and enjoy the sun while it lasts - just don't get burnt!