British expats who spend a lot of time in the sun, especially if they are of an older age group, are being encouraged to check for skin cancer.

The advice from Cancer Research UK comes after research shows that the mortality rate in over 65s dying from the most dangerous kind of skin cancer has almost tripled in the last 30 years.

The report points out that many pensioners spot skin cancer symptoms too late. Failure to get moles and skin changes checked out by a doctor has contributed to a steep rise in deaths from malignant melanoma among pensioners.

Figures from the East of England Cancer Registry (ECRIC) showed that the over 65s were more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma at a late stage compared with younger people. The later skin cancer is detected, the more likely it is to spread and the harder it becomes to treat.

‘While the risk of skin cancer increases with age, the fact that so many over 65s are being diagnosed when the disease is advanced means that older people need to keep a close eye on any changes to their skin or moles to avoid late diagnosis. The earlier the cancer is diagnosed the easier it will be to treat,’ said Caroline Cerny, manager of Cancer Research UK’s SunSmart campaign.

‘People should be aware of the basic warning signs for malignant melanoma. If a mole is as big as a pencil top eraser, bleeds, is sore or itchy, uneven in colour or has jagged edges then people should visit their GP without delay,’ she explained.

Cancer Research UK found that there was a steeper increase in the number of cases of malignant melanoma in the over 65s compared to younger people  also contributed to the threefold increase in deaths.

Data from ECRIC showed that for every year since 1997, significantly more people aged 65 and over have been diagnosed with malignant melanoma at a late stage than those under 65.

In recent years, around 7% of 15 to 64 year olds were diagnosed with late stage malignant melanoma compared with around 20% of people over 65.

‘We know that late diagnosis is a problem in this country and this is likely to be a combination of a number of factors. An important part of the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative is to ensure we develop the evidence both to help us understand the key reasons for delays and find the right approaches to improve earlier diagnosis,’ said Dr Jem Rashbass, director of ECRIC.

Although there have been some improvements in the number of over 65 year olds being diagnosed with melanoma at a late stage, the figures suggest that more needs to be done to raise awareness about skin cancer among this generally retired population.

Cancer Research UK figures showed that the rate of people aged 65 and over dying from melanoma in the UK rose from four deaths per 100,000 people in 1979 to 11.4 deaths per 100,000 people in 2008.

In contrast, the death rate for people aged 15 to 64 has remained stable over the same period at around two deaths per 100,000 people.

The five fold increase over the last 30 years in the number of malignant melanoma cases among the over 65s showed that people need to be careful in the sun now to protect their skin against the disease in years to come.

‘It can take decades for skin cancer to develop so to avoid developing the disease in the future, it is vitally important for young people to be aware that not protecting their skin from sunburn while they are young can increase the risk of melanoma later in life,’ said Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK.

‘Melanoma is a largely preventable disease; people can reduce their chance of getting skin cancer in the first place if they protect their skin from sunburn. Summer may be over, but the damage to skin cells shown by sunburn can remain long after the redness fades,’ she added.