Skin cancer: a burning issue for gardeners

The skin cancer season is approaching - and gardeners are more vulnerable than most. In Australia everyone is aware of the issue. In the UK few realise exposure to sun leads not only potentially to skin cancer but to secondary and life-threatening cancers. My Dad had a chunk of his face removed last year to be replaced by a chunk of his arse.

It's not using sunbeds that needs the skin cancer publicity - it's obvious they are a guilty pleasure. Macho male culture does not help. Why does no-one tell gardeners about the problem?

Over the last 30 years, incidence rates of malignant melanoma in Britain have increased more rapidly than any of the top 10 cancers in males and females. In 2008 around 2,500 people in the UK died from skin cancer. More than 11,700 new cases of malignant melanoma were diagnosed in the UK and almost 99,000 non-melanoma skin cancers were registered.

Professional Gardeners' Guild chairman Tony Arnold, head gardener at Cambridge University's Newnham College, says "I'm suffering from my own habits". Arnold, a gardener for 40 years, had a brown mark removed from the end of his nose last year. The mole on the end of his nose grew over the years until he became self-conscious about it.

"You can imagine some of the comments", he says. "People told me I had mud or grease on my nose, or worse." His doctor said there was nothing he could do because the mark was in an awkward place. In the end he saw a plastic surgeon who said he did not think the mark was sinister. But when the surgeon lopped it off, there were small traces of "active cells". He now has to return to hospital for checks every three months for four years.

During his gardening career, Arnold has seen attitudes change to skin cancer. "It's a relatively new thing to me. Twenty years ago I'd not heard of it. The only people who used sun cream were people who went on holiday to Spain. Wimps is a bit of a harsh word but it was not macho to worry about the sun in those days."

Now, "Slip, slop, slap" is the mantra down under: "mole mapping", where doctors check if moles look pre-cancerous, is free from many employers. People in the UK don't realise that skin cancer leads to secondary cancers that can be life-threatening rather than just disfiguring, so cover up with a hat and get your moles checked. Arnold says gardeners should put on a high factor sun cream, particularly on sensitive areas - tops of ears, bald heads and noses.

"But gardeners are really high-risk because we work outside in the summer. The spring is a vulnerable time too because there's lots of UV light around," he says.

Matthew Appleby is Horticulture Week's deputy editor.

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