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How to Spot This Potentially Deadly Skin Cancer

Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is on the rise, having dramatically seen increasing diagnoses over recent decades. According to a recent study by the American Cancer Society, approximately 96,480 new melanomas will be diagnosed in 2019. The overall incidence of melanoma continues to rise, doubling since the 1980s. 

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common and least dangerous form of skin cancer. There are more than 4,000,000 cases diagnosed in the United States each year. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second-most common form of skin cancer, with more than 700,000 diagnoses each year.  While not usually life threatning, if left untreated, it can grow and cause serious complications.

All told, more than 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer were treated in over 3.3 million people last year.

How do we reverse the trend?

What is melanoma? 

Melanoma is the deadliest form of Skin Cancer. Mortality rates are the highest in older men, however, melanoma is not uncommon in people under 30. In fact, it is the second most common cancer in teens and young adults under 30. Though it is primarily a Caucasian-based disease, people of other skin tones are still at risk. 

To put things in perspective, the average melanoma rate among Caucasians is about 22 cases per 100,000 people annually, while African Americans have an incidence of one case per 100,000 people. That said, while melanoma is uncommon in African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, it is frequently fatal for these populations. Overall, melanoma survival rates for African Americans is 77 percent versus 91 percent for Caucasians. Much of this has to do with late diagnosis and lack of understanding of how melanoma presents itself in the non-Caucasian population. 

Melanomas start when a particular cell in the body becomes damaged and begins to grow in an uncontrolled and dangerous way. This “rogue” cell multiplies quickly and invades surrounding tissues, and can spread to other parts of the body.  

Melanomas develop from pigment-producing cells located at the top layer of the skin called melanocytes. These cancers can become deadly even when they’re less than 1 millimeter thick! However, when melanomas are detected soon after they begin, the chances that they can be removed completely before spreading throughout the body are quite high. That’s why it’s important to diagnose these cancers as soon as possible.

On the rise

By-and-large, melanoma rates continue to rise because of a lack of daily preventative measures, most of which are pretty easy to do. Seek shade from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (the sun’s peak hours), wear sun-protective clothing, such as UV-rated shirts, pants, hats, and sunglasses, and don’t forget to apply (and reapply!) sunscreen every two hours (this includes during winter. Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean the sun isn’t shining).   

UV rays are a carcinogen — that’s the long and short of it. So ask yourself, what are you doing to prevent this omnipresent exposure? 

Do you tan? This is bad practice. So bad, in fact, that 19 states have recently put tanning bed laws into place to prevent minors from exposing themselves to these harmful UV rays solely to achieve a “bronzed” look. 

Using indoor tanning beds before age 35 can increase your risk of melanoma by 59 percent. That risk increases with each  subsequent use. Researchers estimate indoor tanning may cause upwards of 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States each year.

You can’t avoid ALL exposure to UV radiation, but you CAN protect yourself. 

Familial melanoma

Melanomas do sometimes run in families. Familial melanoma is a genetic or inherited condition.  That means the risk of Melanoma can be passed from generation to generation.  In Melanoma prone families independent risk factors for Melanoma are known genetic mutations, moles and sun exposure. 

Family history is important! If you have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child) with melanoma, your risk of getting melanoma can be more than double that of someone without such a family history. So if you have a family history of melanoma, you need a skin check with a board-certified dermatologist annually. 

Spotting melanoma

In general, melanomas usually have one or more of these ABCDE’s of which you should be aware:

  • ASYMMETRY One half of the lesion, spot, or area of concern is unlike the other half.
  • BORDER The border of the lesion, spot, or area of concern is irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined.
  • COLOR — The lesion, spot, or area of concern is varied from one area to another. There may be shades of tan, brown, black, and sometimes even white, red, or blue.
  • DIAMETER The diameter of the lesion, spot, or area of concern is larger than 6 mm (as a rule), which is the same diameter of a pencil eraser. 
  • EVOLVING — Ordinary lesions or spots do not change over time. A lesion, spot, or area of concern that changes in size, shape, color, or texture is a warning sign, as is one that tingles, itches, burns, bleeds, oozes, or feels strange. Another warning sign for melanoma is a sore that does not heal. 

Any changes to any lesion, spot, or area of concern in any way should be evaluated by a doctor immediately!

Even if you are unsure about its severity, call your doctor and ask to be seen to have your spot checked. Trust your gut! If you feel the spot is abnormal, talk to your doctor

A cure

If caught at the earliest stage, melanoma is almost always curable.  

Continued progress is being made with promising new treatment options that are improving the quality of life and increasing overall survival rates for patients with a malignant melanoma diagnosis. 

If you’ve been diagnosed, your treatment choices depend on the stage of the disease, the location of the tumor, and your overall health. Options might include:

  • Surgical removal of the melanoma (such as Mohs)
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation

You’ll likely have questions, and your doctor will explain the options that might work best for your unique situation, including details about the benefits and risks of each. 

Support

Find a melanoma support group in your area. If one is not available, contact IMPACT Melanoma. IMPACT Melanoma provides support groups, including telephonic support groups and Billy’s Buddies, a patient advocacy program. 

For more information, visit IMPACT Melanoma’s website: www.IMPACTmelanoma.org

IMPACT Melanoma, [email protected]

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