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Oncologist warns people to protect their skin while enjoying the sun

People enjoy the sunny weather on the beach in Broadstairs, Kent, ahead of the predicted hot weather over this bank holiday weekend (Gareth Fuller/PA)
People enjoy the sunny weather on the beach in Broadstairs, Kent, ahead of the predicted hot weather over this bank holiday weekend (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Two years after being told he would die within months when radiotherapy failed to fend off skin cancer, a man has described immunotherapy as “the best thing that’s happened” to him.

Sunday marks the start of Skin Cancer Awareness Month and Alan Vannan’s Edinburgh-based consultant clinical oncologist Joanna Mackenzie has urged people to make the effort to protect their skin and to see a GP if they notice any unusual changes.

Mr Vannan, from Peebles, found out he had squamous cell carcinoma when he went to get a lump checked out at his GP.

“When I saw the doctor at St John’s, he took one look and diagnosed it as skin cancer and said they’d need to operate on it quickly. A Macmillan nurse, who’s been brilliant, called me on the way home,” said the 62-year-old.

“Processing what people are telling you after a cancer diagnosis can be the most difficult part.

“Next was the surgery followed by radiotherapy, which wasn’t easy.

Joanna Mackenzie, a consultant clinical oncologist at Edinburgh Cancer Centre (NHS Lothian)

“Beforehand, I always thought of skin cancer as something minor and easily treated.”

But the disease, which is the second most common type of skin cancer, had not gone away and he was told he had just months to live.

“That was a difficult time. They couldn’t operate further. It came as a bit of a shock. Mentally, it was hard to process,” he said.

He then went to see Joanna Mackenzie, of NHS Lothian’s Edinburgh Cancer Centre, who started him on a course of immunotherapy which Mr Vannan described as “the best thing that’s happened to me”.

“I’ve gone from being told I had months to it being two years later,” he said.

“As soon as I started taking the drug the wound healed up. For me, it’s been absolutely fantastic. Every time I’ve got a scan I expected it to get worse, but it never has.”

Mr Vannan is full of praise for the staff who have helped him, as is pensioner Lynda Gordon.

The 74-year-old, from Joppa in Edinburgh, was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma on her nose two years ago and decided she would have radiotherapy.

NHS Lothian used its new superficial x-ray machine which treats the form of disease she had, which is the most common type of skin cancer, and is used used for patients where surgery is not the preferred option.

“I went every weekday for one week. Staff are lovely and make sure to explain everything. It only takes about two minutes each time,” said Ms Gordon.

“The healing process was a bit unpleasant but three to four weeks later it settled, and my nose is looking absolutely fine. I’m really pleased with the results.”

The type of cancer Ms Gordon was diagnosed with is rarely life-threatening but is typically seen on the face and attacks surrounding healthy tissue, sometimes leading to deformity.

Staff at the health board have joined Dr Mackenzie in urging everyone to take simple precautions while outside enjoying the sun.

She said: “It’s easy for us to think that, because we see many months of cold weather, the summer months can’t cause too much damage.

“But whether at home or abroad, we all need to make the effort to protect our skin.

“Simple ways to do so are avoiding the sun at peak times and wearing high-factor sunscreen as well as hats, sunglasses and clothing which covers sensitive areas more prone to sun damage.

“Please contact your GP if you’re concerned about any unusual changes to your skin.”

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