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Melanoma: what to look out for and how to prevent it

by Gill Nuttall Founder of Melanoma UK

A form of skin cancer, melanoma is the fastest growing of all cancers, with incidences up four-fold since the 1970s. Pilots are twice as likely to develop melanoma than the general population; a popular reason given for this is that pilots spend time sunning themselves downroute when flying long-haul.

However, it has long since been the norm for pilots to spend more time downroute than allows for them to get some sleep before flying back and this theory is not supported by evidence. So, if it’s not sun worshipping that is causing this spike in pilot skin cancer cases, what is it?

Is the cockpit the cause?

As the energy of visible light increases its colour changes from red to violet, then, as the energy further increases, the light becomes ultra-violet (UV).

BALPA believes that, while the aircraft windscreen absorbs most of the UV light, the possibility exists that light that is at the low energy end of the UV spectrum, UV-A, and its visible light neighbour in the spectrum, energetic blue light (violet light), may be transmitted through the aircraft windscreen in significant amounts. It is plausible that UV-A, and energetic blue light may not only have a role in the induction of melanoma.

At the BALPA pilot health symposium earlier this year, one pilot told of how he has been diagnosed with multiple ‘squamous cell’ and ‘basal cell’ carcinomas (SCC and BCC) on the right side of his body as a first officer, but has recently been promoted to captain and therefore wonders if he might see the occurrences switch to the left side.  While these aren’t as serious as melanoma, they are notoriously difficult to treat and very unpleasant when they flare up.

While just anecdotal evidence, this could be just one example of how it is indeed the light in the cockpit, and not supposed sunbathing downroute that leaves pilots more exposed. An area for further investigation perhaps? BALPA and Melanoma UK would be interested to hear your thoughts at communications@balpa.org.

How to prevent melanoma

Here, I have tailored some of the advice we at Melanoma UK give to the general public, for pilots. These are three top level steps to protecting against melanoma, however, to read more on what to look out for or find out how you can donate to us, visit www.melanomauk.org.uk