Melanoma: Are You at Risk?

In 1995 the American Academy of Dermatology designated the first Monday in May as Melanoma Monday to raise awareness of this potentially fatal skin cancer and to encourage early detection.

Early detection is critical. According to the American Cancer Society, when detected at Stage I, its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 97 percent. If the disease progresses to its most advanced stage, Stage IV, the five-year survival rate drops to 15-20 percent.

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer and one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States. Approximately 65 percent of melanoma cases are caused by sunlight or tanning beds, so the importance of avoiding that exposure cannot be overstated. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking a part of your body is safe from the risk of melanoma because it isn’t exposed to the sun. I’ve treated patients with melanomas in obscure places not exposed to the sun, like the bottom of a foot.

The best way to find melanoma at its earliest stage is conducting self-exams at least once a month to look for changes in moles, freckles or other marks on your skin. The American Cancer Society’s “ABCD” rule will help you recognize a potentially dangerous mole:

  • A is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
  • B is for Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.
  • C is for Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or there may be patches of pink, red, white or blue.
  • D is for Diameter: The spot is larger than about one-quarter inch (the size of a pencil eraser), but melanomas can be smaller than this.

See your primary care physician if you have any of the “ABCD” signs or if you have a mole that is growing or changing in shape or color. Even if your mole doesn’t have these signs, show it to your doctor if you’re unsure whether or not it’s harmless.

In addition to the “ABCDs,” watch for these warning signs:

  • A sore that does not heal;
  • Spread of color from the border of a spot to the surrounding skin;
  • Redness or new swelling beyond the border;
  • Itchiness, tenderness or pain; or
  • Change in the surface of a mole — scaliness, oozing, bleeding or a new bump or nodule.

As a surgical oncologist, I’m encouraged by the successful results we’re achieving through surgery. I’d be even more encouraged to see people take seriously the dangers of the disease and follow these recommendations from the Melanoma Research Foundation to help prevent skin cancer:

  • Generously apply sunscreen to all exposed skin—even on cloudy days—year-round. Be sure to use a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Look for ingredients in your sunscreen such as titanium dioxide and mexoryl, which block UVA rays better.
  • Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Use extra caution near water, snow and sand, as they reflect the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chance of sunburn.
  • Do not burn. Severe sunburns, especially during childhood, increase your risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancer. Just one blistering sunburn can double your chances of developing melanoma later in life.
  • Avoid intentional tanning and indoor tanning beds. Current research indicates there is no way to get a tan through ultraviolet exposure without increasing the risk for skin cancer.
  • Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that includes vitamin supplements. Don’t seek the sun.
  • Be aware of medications that can increase your sensitivity to sunlight. Certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs have the ability to make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.

I encourage you to observe Melanoma Monday by assessing your risk factors and to practice skin safety year-round.

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