When Dave Hayward spotted what he thought was a particularly dark mole on his thigh three years ago, his first instinct was to seek help from a doctor. Yet after an appointment that left him feeling “like a schoolchild”, the 53-year-old was shrugged off, he says, and told it would go away.
Two months on, friends pushed him to seek a second opinion – and a biopsy found that the melanoma had spread to his lymph nodes, requiring the removal of “quite a big chunk of my thigh”; around seven centimetres in diameter, and three centimetres deep. Thirteen nodes were removed to wipe any trace of the disease from the area. But two and a half years and a failed bout of immunotherapy later, seven more melanomas have presented themselves.
Hayward, a cyber security consultant, considers himself “lucky compared with some patients, [whose melanoma] goes into their brain”. But the past three years have been life-changing for a man who previously played football and rugby each week, alongside several spin classes. Post-treatment steroids have seen him put on three stone and become pre-diabetic. He has also had to give up his role volunteering as a special constable with Avon and Somerset Police; “It’s had a massive impact,” he reflects.
Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, and typically presents as a new mole, or via changes to an existing one. Six people are killed daily by the disease, with men 69 per cent more likely to die from it than women. Now, at the end of a long hot summer, experts are urging us to check for suspect moles; with men at even greater need of knowing the warning signs.
That his cohort remain so badly affected by the disease – coupled with months of on-off heatwaves, and new research revealing that only a quarter of men apply sunscreen – makes Hayward wince. A redhead with fair skin, he spent decades unaware of the real risks of excessive UV exposure – once burning to the point of blistering – not realising the extent of his likelihood of developing melanoma. Three times as many people are diagnosed with melanoma now than they were in 1973, and while it is more commonly picked up among younger women, that flips at 60, where men account for more cases and deaths in every subsequent age group.
Cell damage over time from UV rays or even sunbeds means that melanoma is most often diagnosed around the age of 80. This provides a false sense of security for younger men, thinks Alex Randall, 35, who admits to rarely putting suncream on. “Although I am aware of skin cancer risks, I don’t think I pay enough attention to the evidence presented. Perhaps this is because I still harbour the misguided beliefs of my youth and tend to believe it’s not something that will be a problem for me,” he says.
Suncream reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 per cent; new figures from Cancer Research UK have found that almost 90 per cent of the UK’s nearly 17,000 annual melanoma diagnoses are preventable, and that getting sunburnt just once every two years can treble skin cancer risk. Dr Paul Banwell, founder and former head of the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Unit in East Grinstead who now runs a Harley Street clinic, says that men being more likely to walk around shirtless is among the reasons the incidence rate has risen by 47 per cent (compared with 30 per cent for women) in the past 10 years. Multiple studies show that men are also less likely to seek help when they do think something is wrong.
Dr Banwell calls Cancer Research’s figures “very worrying”, as “skin cancer is easily treated when it is caught early, but the outcomes reduce significantly the longer it is left”. Gender plays a huge role when it comes to this disease, he adds, as “many men view sunscreen as a ‘girly’ beauty product”.
Hayward agrees there is a “macho culture” preventing many men from applying it. He has taken to bringing sachets of LifeJacket Skin – a male-specific suncream – to rugby matches, handing them out to particularly burnt spectators who joke that they don’t need it, because their skin will eventually turn brown. “People don’t realise the damage they’re doing,” he says. Attitudes around suncream-wearing for spectators remain iffy: last month, Manchester City FC told fans they weren’t allowed to bring it to matches – which they later described as an “administrative error” after being challenged by charity Melanoma UK.
Awareness is rising, albeit slowly. Hayward says his main goal now is to educate people about the risks – ones he barely understood himself previously, sometimes applying a single layer of suncream before a full day in the sun while out sailing. He hopes his experiences will resonate with men – including his son, who is now 15. His son is careful about UV rays, Hayward says; probably because “it’s been quite hard for him to see his active, football-going dad [become] someone who can’t play much … it’s been an emotional time.”