Living Well

Melanoma: What You Need to Know

Last updated: May 01, 2017

The good news is more cases of melanoma—a potentially fatal form of skin cancer—are being caught in the early stages when it is still treatable. This is dramatically different from a decade ago and awareness continues to rise about the importance of getting suspicious moles and other growths checked by a physician.

Nearly one in five Americans develop skin cancer during their lifetime. The majority of skin cancers are caused by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which come from sunlight, tanning beds, or sun lamps. Over time, this radiation builds up in our body and damages cells. 

“In addition to sun burns, the cumulative effect of sun exposure can cause skin cancer,” says Hari Nadiminti, MD, a dermatologist and surgeon at Summit Medical Group  MD Anderson Cancer Center. “If you had a lot of previous sun exposure, history of sunburns, or tanned in your youth, skin cancer can still catch up with you later in life. It is critical to protect yourself starting in childhood.”

Early Detection Saves Lives

Melanoma is a less common, but potentially deadly, form of skin cancer. When caught and treated early, melanoma is highly curable. However, when it goes undetected, it can spread quickly to other areas of the body.      

“If you have a suspicious mole make sure you make an appointment with a dermatologist to have it evaluated. We are committed to see patients with concerning moles quickly,” says Dr. Nadiminti.

If your doctor suspects you have skin cancer they will remove a small piece of the mole or spot, a procedure called a biopsy. The sample is then checked in the laboratory for for cancer cells.

Most patients with skin cancer, including early-stage, localized  melanoma, can be cured with surgery. During the procedure, the tumor and surrounding area of tissue are removed. When melanoma spreads to other areas of the body, doctors may consider  a treatment known as immunotherapy that may help activate the immune system to fight the cancerous cells

Warning Signs of Melanoma: Remember ABCDE 

  • Check your skin monthly for any new marks, spots, or changes. Use a full-length mirror so you can see the back of your body. Do not forget to check between your toes and on the top of your head.
  • Schedule a yearly mole check with a dermatologist if you have risk factors for developing melanoma including a personal or family history of skin cancer, a history of significant sun exposure, and a large number of moles.
  • Call your doctor immediately if you have any new spots or notice any changes.
  • Look for the ABCDE warning signs of melanoma.
  • A = Asymmetry — One side of the mole does not match the opposite side. If you draw a line through the middle of the mole, the two sides should be symmetrical.
  • B = Borders — Spots with edges that are irregular, notched, or blurred. A normal mole has a smooth border.
  • C = Color — Marks that have different colors or shades of brown, black, pink, red, white, or blue. A benign mole is usually one shade of brown.
  • D = Diameter — Moles larger than 6mm, about the size of a pencil eraser, may be abnormal.
  • E = Evolving — Spots that change in size, shape, or color or begin to bleed, itch, or crust. A normal mole will not change over time.

Types of Skin Cancer

Other less serious but more common forms of skin cancer include:

  • Basal cell carcinoma – a small bump, scaly patch, or hard growth that usually develops on areas that are exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, and arms.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma – rough, scaly, or raised patches that can resemble warts or open sores, typically found on sun-exposed areas of the body.

“The warning signs of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are different than melanoma. Make sure to have any suspicious spots evaluated – such as spots that are not healing, bleeding, or spots that are sensitive, shiny, red, or come back in the same area,” advises Dr. Nadiminti.

How to Prevent Skin Cancer

Be your best defense against skin cancer. Follow these tips at the pool and beach this summer:

  • Wear sunscreen – Lather up all year round when you are outside even if it is cloudy. When the sun is hidden behind a cloud, 80 percent of its rays can still penetrate your skin. Reapply every two hours. Click to learn more about choosing and using sunscreen safely.
  • Use SPF 30 — Lather up with an SPF 30 or higher. Choose a broad-spectrum sun block that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. If you are swimming in the pool, make sure you use a water-resistant sun block and reapply when you dry off.
  • Find shade – Give your skin a break during the heat of the day. The sun is strongest between .
  • Cover up – Wear lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and pants on the beach and a broad-brimmed hat.
  • Lose the tan – Never intentionally sunbathe or use a tanning bed.
  • Protect your eyes – Skin cancer can develop on the eyelid. Find shades that filter out UVA and UVB rays.
  • Keep newborns inside – Babies under six months of age should not use sunscreen. Cover up infants and stay indoors.

References:

1.   Interview with Hari Nadiminti, MD, a dermatologist and surgeon at Summit Medical Group. (3/20/17).

2.   American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Melanoma Skin Cancer. Web. 6 Jan. 2017

3.   American Cancer Society. What Is Melanoma Skin Cancer? Web. 20 May 2016.

4.   American Academy of Dermatology. Melanoma Signs and Symptoms. Web 2017.  

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