Friday, July 6, 2012

Melanoma: What you need to know

Summer is officially here and after months of cloudy skies, the sun can prove pretty irresistible.  There’s nothing like enjoying a nice day in the sun but it’s important to remember that excessive exposure is a huge risk factor in developing skin cancer.  

The melanoma research foundation reports that just one bad sun burn can double your chances of developing skin cancer later in life.  Melanoma is more common than prostate, colon and lung cancer in men over the age of 50, is the most common form of cancer for young adults ages 25-29 and the second most common in young adults ages 15-29. Rates of the disease have tripled since 1980.

Melanoma is a skin cancer that affects skin cells called melanocytes; cells that produce skin color.  They are responsible for giving our moles their dark color.  Most of the time, these moles are benign (non-cancerous) skin tumors but sometimes a mole can develop into melanoma or a new mole can be a sign of early melanoma.

There are several risk factors but the causes of this type of skin cancer are exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and exposure to artificial radiation from sun lamps and tanning booths.  Risk factors include age; young adult to middle age, fair skin; melanoma is more than 10 times more common in whites than in African Americans, red or blonde hair, family history, excessive exposure and having a suppressed immune system.  

 The good news is that we are in control of our exposure and through prevention can greatly limit our risks.  We can limit our time in the sun (it’s best to avoid exposure between 10am and 2pm), avoid tanning booths and take precautions when we do go outside.  Also, it’s important to wear SPF of at least 15, wear clothing that covers our skin, and wear a wide brim hat and sunglasses.

A girlfriend of mine recently went to her dermatologist to have a mole removed from her neck.  She wasn’t worried about it, she wanted it removed for aesthetics but when they sent out the tissue for testing, the results were melanoma.  She’s lucky that she happened to catch it because most of the time, melanoma is hard to detect.

Symptoms include a mole that has any of the following characteristics:
-uneven shape
-ragged edges
-uneven color
-change in size
-change in texture
The ABCDE system can help you remember possible symptoms; Asymmetry, Borders, Colors, Diameter, Evolution.

Remember, most moles are benign but if you notice any of the above changes in your moles, it’s important to see your doctor.  Most of us don’t consider getting checked by our dermatologist yearly but it’s a good idea to have an annual scan of your body by someone with a trained eye.  A doctor can is also able to do something called “mole mapping” where a series of photos is taken of a patient’s moles and compared from year to year to see if any significant changes have happened.  That’s because it’s impossible for a doctor to remember each patient and often, we don’t pay attention to the small details of each of our own moles to be able to accurately tell if they are changing.  A doctor can also teach you how to do a thorough exam but as we all know, there are parts that we can’t reach or see.

My friend’s mole was removed completely and since she caught it early, she didn’t need the harsher treatment of chemotherapy.  The key to successfully treating melanoma is recognizing the symptoms early and survival in patients is directly related to early detection.  Malignant melanoma is virtually preventable with simple behavioral changes!

 For more information about warning signs, risk factors and prevention, please visit

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