This is an especially important awareness month because the simple act of taking the time to look at your skin can literally save your life. Melanoma, a cancer of the pigment-producing cells that live in our upper layer of skin, is the most serious form of skin cancer. Over 7,000 people die each year of melanoma due to its ability to spread from the skin to the internal organs. However, nearly all of these deaths are preventable, as melanoma detected at its early stage is almost always curable with a simple surgery. Catching melanoma early is the key to saving lives.
What Causes Melanoma
Exposure to natural (sun) or artificial (tanning bed) ultraviolet light is the most well-studied risk factor for melanoma. In fact, experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 can increase a person’s melanoma risk by 80 percent. Genetics and immunodeficiencies can also play a role. Patients with a large number of atypical or dysplastic moles, considered precancerous growths, are also at higher risk.
What Does Melanoma Look Like
Dermatologists urge everyone to examine their skin regularly; the first of each month is often a good reminder. The entire body should be examined, even areas that don’t receive sun exposure, and often a partner is needed to help monitor difficult-to-see locations like the back. Cancers, by their nature, are growing, so if you notice a new mole, a mole that looks different than the others on your skin, or one that changes, itches, or bleeds, you should make an appointment to see your dermatologist. Patients with dark skin should also pay close attention to moles that appear on their hands and feet.
The “ABCDE rule” is helpful in identifying the warning signs of melanoma.
- Asymmetry – one half of the mole does not match the other half
- Border Irregularity – a ragged, notched, or blurred outline of the mole
- Color Irregularity – non-uniform pigmentation and the presence of different colors in the mole
- Diameter increasing – growth of a mole, especially if more than 6mm (pencil eraser size)
- Evolving – the mole is growing and looks different from other moles on the skin
Can Melanoma be Cured?
Yes, but typically only if it is caught in its earliest stage, which often lasts many months. This is why screening and self-detection of melanoma are so important. If you notice an abnormal growth on your skin, do not delay, because catching melanoma early could be the difference between life and death.
Can Melanoma be Prevented?
Most melanoma prevention strategies are centered around the protection of the skin from harmful UV rays. Seek shade when available and avoid the strongest sun rays between 10 AM-2 PM. Wear protective clothing including long-sleeve shirts, wide-brim hats, and sunglasses. Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above and reapply every 2 hours or after getting wet when active in sunlight. Avoid tanning beds, which have been proven to increase skin cancer rates and promote early aging of the skin. Use a self-tanning product as a safe way to cosmetically darken the skin.
If you find a suspicious mole on your skin or would like to schedule a skin check, get in touch today!