“Check your skin regularly,” is Suzanne Warner’s advice to anyone who has spent time in the sun, which is most of us. Warner, a 52 year-old resident of Dallas, Texas, showed her dermatologist a spot on her face that appeared different in texture from her other skin. After a biopsy revealed it was melanoma, Warner had a half-dollar size mass removed from her forehead.

“I was in shock. It wasn’t a mole, like you commonly hear about. It was just different-looking skin.”

Warner is right to be on edge. Melanoma is the one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States and worldwide. Found early, when the melanoma still resides in the top layer of the skin, the five-year survival rate is around 99 percent. Found late, after it has metastasized and spread to other organs, the five-year survival rate drops to a frightening 15-20 percent. It is this massive difference in survival rates that should compel us all to focus on identifying melanoma early — and do what we can to prevent it in the first place.

Recognizing risks

“To reduce our risk of melanoma, we need to protect ourselves from UV rays,” says Jean Schlipmann, Co-Founder of AIM at Melanoma, the largest international foundation advancing the battle against melanoma. She offers the following simple but critical tips:

“Apply a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen — SPF 30 or higher — to all exposed skin and reapply every two hours while outside. Stay out of the sun when UV rays are the strongest — usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you’re outdoors, seek shade under an umbrella, tree, or other shelter. When in the sun, wear protective clothing — a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, a wide-brim hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses, and never use UV tanning devices.”

Schlipmann is determined to educate the public about the dangers of tanning devices because most people do not understand the risks. Using an indoor tanning device before age 35 can increase one’s risk of developing melanoma by 59 percent; the risk increases with each use. “What many don’t realize is that more people develop skin cancer because of tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking,” Schlipmann says.

Warner is familiar with these cautions now. But like most adults, she spent many years in the sun. “I wear sunblock and a hat religiously now,” she says. “But the damage is done. So I’m also religious about checking my skin.”

Indeed, identifying melanoma early can be life-saving. But what should we look for?

“The second strategy is to look for so-called ‘ugly ducklings,’ or any mole or spot that looks different from the others on your skin.”

Catching it early

 “All of us should check our skin regularly and employ two strategies for identifying suspicious spots. The first is to use the ‘ABCDE’ guidelines,” says Schlipmann, “Look for any mole or spot that is Asymmetrical; has an uneven Border; is more than one Color; is larger than ¼ inch in Diameter; or has somehow Evolved (changed). The second strategy is to look for so-called ‘ugly ducklings,' or any mole or spot that looks different from the others on your skin. If you find anything suspicious, see a dermatologist.”

In addition to self-exams, we should all have a yearly skin-check with a dermatologist, especially those at higher risk for melanoma. “If you have fair skin or a lot of moles, have had at least one blistering sunburn in your lifetime, or have used a tanning device, you are at greater risk for developing melanoma,” Schlipmann says.

The spot on Suzanne Warner’s forehead that turned out to be melanoma wouldn’t have been visible to a casual observer. “But I did notice a change in the skin there, and I had it checked right away,” she says. Her vigilance may have saved her life. “Now I know,” Warner says. “And now I’m telling everyone: Check your skin.”