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Cover up in the sun today, thank me for it tomorrow

Take it from a man who knows: skin cancer is better prevented than treated.

Today, I am shivering in London, during one of the coldest springs on record. Weather-wise it's not an ideal time to take a short break in this corner of Europe. But it's time for my annual medical check-up.

Nothing dramatic, I'm pleased to say. It's just to allow a specialist to look me over and see whether I've developed any more patches of skin cancer. The first one appeared on my left arm three years ago. It was quickly removed, and now I have a check-up every six months or so.

About a dozen pieces of skin have been excised in all, most from my face, which is beginning to resemble a patchy quilt as more areas of scar tissue are created. Still, I'm fortunate that all of the four or five pieces that have been cancerous have been of the relatively benign basal cell type and squamous-cell carcinoma (the really bad one is called melanoma).

My London specialist tells me that, given the years that this blond Englishman has spent living in the UAE's sunny climate, I'm lucky that the problem isn't far worse. Fortunately, I've never been one to relish lying on the beach to brush up my tan, or wandering around in shorts. Moreover, my specialist in Abu Dhabi has a policy of rapidly cutting out anything that looks a little bit suspicious. I'm quite happy for him to do that.

Just before I left for London this time, I visited a popular local leisure and health club. Around the pool and on the beach were dozens of people exposing as much as was decent of their skin to the sun, soaking up its burning, ultraviolet rays.

Some, already with a bit of a tan, were evidently UAE residents. Others were evidently holiday-makers out from colder climes, either very pale - presumably those who had just arrived - or a shade of red that reminded me of a lobster that has just been popped into a saucepan of boiling water. It made me feel uncomfortable just thinking about how sore they were going to be at the end of the day.

An expert in risk assessment would have laid heavy odds on the probability of at least some of those sun-worshippers developing skin cancer in the years to come. It may take some time. I am suffering now from my incautious behaviour 25 or 30 years ago. But it's highly likely to develop.

I asked the club manager what steps he took to deal with the issue. He told me that the club has more shaded areas than ever before, that sun screen is made available for all staff who work outdoors, and that parents of children attending outdoor activities are encouraged to make sure that the children use sun screen or wear tops. He said supplies were available for those who hadn't brought their own.

He has an answer, which I took as a positive sign. Still perhaps it might be a good idea to also remind patrons more regularly of the dangers of skin cancer.

There must be several hundred thousand UAE residents who hail from more temperate climes, quite apart from the millions of tourists who fly in from northern Europe seeking sun, sea and sand. Many of those will - and do - suffer from serious sunburn. A short period of discomfort, along with a bit of peeling, and they probably think the problem is over, until the next time. Not so - decades from now, some, perhaps many, will have to undergo treatment as I do now.

Noel Coward's old phrase, "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun," seems apt. First coined long before advances in medicine explained in detail the causes of skin cancer, it is nonetheless a modern warning of the precautions that those susceptible to burning should take.

Perhaps it's time that the health authorities, schools and clubs - even tourism authorities - paid more attention to the issue. In Australia, where a large percentage of the population originates from temperate regions, the government took action after a marked rise in skin cancer cases was noted, running a four-year national skin cancer awareness campaign to educate people about the risks. The UAE can learn from Australia's experience.

As for me, when I get back from London I'll still head out in the sun. But I won't do so without my floppy hat and long-sleeved shirt.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

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