May is Melanoma Awareness Month, and as the summer weather begins here in South Louisiana, it’s the perfect time to be aware of skin cancer. Learning what signs and symptoms to watch for, as well as ways to prevent melanoma can help you avoid its dangers. Take some time now to learn about how to protect your skin this summer and throughout the year.
Melanoma is a common type of skin cancer that originates in melanocytes, the skin’s pigment-producing cells. These skin cells produce melanin, which gives the hair, eyes and skin their color. Melanoma is the one of the most common cancers among people in the United States and is the most serious form of skin cancer. This is because melanoma has the ability to spread to other areas of the body, something other types of skin cancer rarely do. The good news is that when found early, melanoma is highly treatable.
Causes and Risk Factors
The leading cause of melanoma is exposure to UV rays from the sun. Sunlight hitting the melanocytes causes them to make more melanin, resulting in a tan, freckles or moles—most of which are benign. However, researchers believe that overexposure to UV light can damage the DNA in melanocytes, which makes them grow out of control and form a tumor. Any excessive exposure to UV radiation increases your risk of melanoma, such as tanning beds or blistering sunburns in childhood. Living close to the equator or in particularly sunny areas also increases risk. Exposure to UV light is the greatest cause of melanoma, but there are other risk factors as well including:
- Fair skin
- Blue or green eyes
- Blond or red hair
- Sun-sensitive skin
- Skin that burns easily and rarely tans
- 50 or more moles
- Large moles
- An irregular mole
- History of melanoma or other type of cancer
- Disease that weakens your immune system
- Family history of melanoma
Signs and Symptoms
- The first sign of melanoma is usually the appearance of an unusual looking mole or changes to an existing mole. Use the ABCs to examine skin for signs of melanoma:
- A – Asymmetry: The two halves of the mole don’t match.
- B – Border: A scalloped, irregular or poorly defined border.
- C – Color: The color varies from one part to another.
- D – Diameter: The size is larger than that of a pencil eraser.
- E – Evolving: Changes in size, shape, color or appearance.
Moles that bleed, itch or are painful can also indicate the presence of melanoma. It occurs most frequently on areas of the skin that receive the most sun exposure, such as the face, head, arms and legs. However, melanoma can also arise in other parts of the body including the eyes, brain or spinal cord, the intestines and under the nails. Because early detection is critical, it is important to examine your skin for the signs and symptoms of the condition.
When to Seek a Professional Opinion
If you notice any of the above signs and symptoms, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist immediately. They are trained to examine suspicious moles and can determine if a biopsy is required. A biopsy is the only way to diagnosis melanoma.
The way melanoma is treated depends on how severe it has become. When discovered early, it is usually simple to remove the infected area. As the melanoma grows deeper or if it spreads beyond the skin, it becomes more difficult to treat. Lymph nodes in the surrounding area may need to be removed and examined for signs of cancer; if the lymph nodes are cancer free, then the disease probably hasn’t spread. However, if they show signs of cancer then further examinations will be required. Melanoma often spreads to the brain or the lungs, so a chest x-ray and brain scan are likely to be part of the next step. Once it has spread outside of the skin, melanoma is challenging to treat and may require radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy or biological therapy. At this stage the five-year survival rate is 16 percent, so the importance of catching it early while it is usually curable cannot be overstated.
Taking steps to prevent melanoma is a lifelong task, but well worth the effort. Following a few simple guidelines reduces your risk of melanoma:
- Avoid tanning beds
- Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 year-round
- Wear tightly woven clothing, hats and visors to limit sun exposure
- Stay out of the sun during midday while its rays are the strongest, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Check your skin regularly or visit your dermatologist to have your skin examined to discover melanoma early
Melanoma is a common problem in the United States, but by taking steps to prevent it you can reduce your risk of developing this type of skin cancer. If you notice a questionable spot on your skin or are concerned about your risk of melanoma, call to schedule an appointment with our on-staff dermatologist who can examine your skin and answer any questions you may have. Early discovery and treatment are key to curing this disease, so check your skin regularly and don’t wait if you discover something unusual.