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Living Well

Take a Close Look at Your Melanoma Risk

Last updated: Aug 26, 2015

When you heard the news about former President Jimmy Carter’s melanoma, did you stop to think about your own risk for this deadly type of skin cancer?

Melanoma is rare—it makes up only 2 percent of skin cancers—but it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 10,000 Americans will die from melanoma in 2015, and rates have been rising for decades.

The former president’s announcement has spotlighted not just melanoma’s toll but also encouraging news about recent advances in treatment. It’s also a wake-up call to consider your risks and learn how to prevent melanoma—or at least catch it early—when it can usually be cured.

What’s Your Risk?

Anyone can develop melanoma, also called malignant melanoma, but people with light skin are at the most risk. There is even variation within groups. Caucasians with olive skin face lower risks than Caucasians with lighter skin, for instance. Redheads and blondes as well as those with blue or green eyes are at extra risk. Other major risk factors for melanoma include:

  • An earlier experience with melanoma or another kind of skin cancer
  • A family history of melanoma
  • Having large or unusual moles
  • Having more than 50 moles on your body
  • Having sun-sensitive skin that burns easily

If you have one of these risk factors, visit a dermatologist for a thorough exam every year.

Risk for melanoma increases with age, but there are differences in how the disease affects men and women. Women are at most risk for melanoma before age 45, and melanoma is the second most common cancer for women ages 20 to 29. After age 60, though, men are twice as likely to develop the disease. The male-female difference continues to widen with age, and by age 80, men are three times more likely than women to have melanoma.

Be Savvy About the Sun

There are plenty of misconceptions when it comes to the sun and suntans. The fact is, minimizing your time in the sun, and protecting yourself when you’re outside, is key to preventing all kinds of skin cancer, including melanoma. To be sun-safe:

  • Stop tanning, especially with a tanning bed. No matter what you may have heard, tanning beds are a hazard to your health. Your melanoma risk soars by 75 percent if you tan indoors, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. The idea of a safe “base tan” is also myth; a base tan just increases your risk for skin cancer.
  • Make sunscreen a daily habit. Use a generous amount of at least SPF30, with both UVA and UVB protection, even on cloudy days. Reapply sunscreen often, especially if you’re swimming.
  • Choose UV protective sunglasses. Your eyes aren’t immune to melanoma. Protect both your eyes and the skin around them with a good pair of sunglasses.

Self-Exams: Your First Line of Defense

While former President Carter’s melanoma is unusual because it is inside his body, most melanomas are easier to spot, making skin self-exams important.

You may not have a medical degree, but conducting your own monthly skin self-exam is crucial to catching melanoma early. That’s because a common sign of melanoma is a mole or other spot that has changed its appearance in some way. By checking regularly, you’ll be able to notice what’s different. It could be a freckle that has gotten bigger, a new mole, a tiny black spot, or some other change.

The American Cancer Society advises people to watch for the “ugly duckling sign”—a spot that doesn’t look like anything else on your skin.

Check yourself from head to toe closely—and even between your toes and under your fingernails. If you’re wondering why you need to check between your toes, it’s because sometimes melanoma is not completely sun-related. Ask a friend or spouse to check your back, or stand in front of a full-length mirror and use a hand mirror.

Know Your ABCDEs

Dermatologists suggest using “ABCDE” to remember what to watch for in moles and other spots:

  • Asymmetry. One half does not match the other half.
  • Border. The edges are ragged, blurred or irregular.
  • Color. The color varies and may include shades of black, brown and tan.
  • Diameter. There is a change in size; usually the mole has gotten larger
  • Evolving. The mole has changed in size, shape, or color during the past few weeks or months.

Other trouble signs include a bruise that doesn’t heal or a mole that itches, hurts, or bleeds. Under a nail, an early sign of melanoma is a brown-to-black-colored streak. Melanomas are more likely to develop on the chest and back for men; women are more likely to have them on their legs.

If anything doesn’t look right, call a dermatologist for an appointment right away. When caught and treated early, almost 100 percent of melanoma cases can be cured. Procrastination is your enemy, though, so don’t wait and see. If melanoma spreads, it can be deadly.

Diagnosing and Treatment: What to Expect

If your dermatologist thinks you have a suspicious mole or other spot, he or she will remove it or part of it, and send the skin off for a biopsy. A pathologist will study the skin to see if it includes any melanoma cells. Sometimes a different kind of biopsy is done to see whether the cancer has spread.

If the cancer hasn’t spread, you may be able to have the melanoma removed right in the doctor’s office once your skin has been numbed. One technique, called Mohs surgery, allows surgeons to remove a thin layer of tissue and examine it during, rather than after, surgery. As a result, surgeons know exactly when tissue is free of cancer cells so they do not unnecessarily remove healthy tissue.

People whose melanoma has spread or goes more deeply into the skin may need more extensive treatment. This could include removing the lymph nodes, targeted therapy designed to shrink the melanoma, chemotherapy, or radiation.

Carter has said he will have at least one radiation treatment as well as treatments with an immune-system drug. These kinds of drugs help your body’s own immune system fight the cancer. Immune-system drugs approved recently have increased the options for people with advanced melanoma.

While each situation is different, there is one key takeaway when it comes to melanoma: Get to know your skin, and see a dermatologist if you have any concerns.

Expertise Where It Counts

Whether you have a mole that doesn’t look quite right or need treatment for melanoma, Summit Medical Group’s dermatologists have the expertise that makes all the difference. Our physicians trained in Mohs Micrographic Surgery provide high cure rates while minimizing scarring.

Click here to learn more
about Mohs Micrographic Surgery.


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 “Immunotherapy for melanoma skin cancer.” American Cancer Society,

“Melanoma.” U.S. National Library of Medicine,

“Melanoma FAQs.” American Academy of Dermatology,

“Melanoma: Tips for Finding and Preventing.” American Academy of Dermatology,

“Melanoma: Who Gets, Causes.” American Academy of Dermatology,

“Skin Cancer Quick Facts.” Summit Medical Group,

“What Are the Key Statistics About Melanoma Skin Cancer?” American Cancer Society,