Patients battling the most serious form of skin cancer are less likely to survive in Ireland than in any other European country, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
Latest figures show the number of people diagnosed with melanoma here has topped 1,000 per year for the first time ever and on average 159 people are dying from the disease each year.
The Irish Cancer Society (ICS) says the mortality rate puts Ireland bottom of the survival league for melanoma across Europe. Cancer prevention manager Kevin O’Hagan said it was more important than ever that people know the importance of protecting themselves from the sun.
“The summer may be coming to an end, but it’s still important to be sun smart,” he said. “You don’t have to live in a Mediterranean country for the sun to do damage to your skin and Irish people need to wise up to that.
“Even cloudy days can do serious damage to your skin if you’re not suitably protected. Whether it’s sunny or cloudy, everyone should protect their skin.”
Much progress has been made in treating melanoma which, up to recent years, was extremely hard for doctors to control and left patients with a short life expectancy — particularly those diagnosed late.
Derek Power, consultant medical oncologist at the Mercy Hospital and Cork University Hospital, has been to the forefront of new melanoma cancer treatments in Ireland.
Speaking prior to a public talk in Cork last night as part of the ICS’s Decoding Cancer series of events, Dr Power said it was an exciting time to be working with cancer patients.
“Melanoma cases are rising, but thanks to research advances, there are more ways to treat this form of cancer than ever,” he said.
“Before 2010 the treatment for advanced melanoma was ineffective. Chemotherapy did not work and drugs which stimulated the immune system to fight the disease were very toxic and overall results were poor.
“The last 10-15 years, however, have seen major improvements in the treatment of advanced and localised melanoma, to the extent that the disease is now seen as the poster-child for modern targeted therapy and immunotherapy. We now have many treatments in both tablet and injection forms that can prolong life and have tolerable side-effects.
“It is a very exciting time for a doctor like me who sees many patients with melanoma. It is wonderful to see patients benefiting from modern therapies and living good quality lives.”
Melanoma makes up only a small percentage of the skin cancer cases diagnosed in Ireland each year. Some 11,000 people get a diagnosis of skin cancer but most are basal cell or squamous cell which are easier to treat. However, late diagnosis of any form can leave a patient extremely vulnerable and the Irish Cancer Society is warning that its message about sun protection does not end with summer.
More people holidaying abroad and enjoying outdoor pursuits at home means more people exposed to the risk of skin cancer.
Outdoor workers such as farmers and construction workers are at particular risk and the ICS has distributed leaflets to the IFA and Construction Industry Federation to try to raise awareness.
Cases of melanoma in Ireland have trebled in the last 20 years but the rise has affected men more than women, with the incidence rate in men rising 125%, compared to 54% among women.