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- Melanoma Month is dedicated to spreading the awareness of the disease, which can be caused by harmful rays the body takes in during sun exposure.
- Dr. Alexis Duke, board-certified dermatologist, classifies melanomas as a type of cancer that most commonly occurs in the skin. It develops in the cells that produce pigment in the skin, hair and eyes, which are known as melanocytes.
- There are a multitude of studies on how melanoma occurs, but studies suggest that the majority of the cases are linked to ultraviolet (UV) exposure.There are multiple risk factors in developing melanoma such as pale skin, lots of freckles and moles.
- Signs in having melanoma are changes in existing moles, sores that don’t heal, moles that show up later in life and more.
- Preventative measures of melanoma include covering the skin, staying away from tanning beds and wearing sun glasses with wide outer frames.
Soaking up the sun is a wonderful part of summer living, but it can have unintended consequences. One of these is an increased risk for skin cancer. May is Melanoma Month, and Board-Certified Dermatologist Dr. Alexis Duke wants to make patients aware of the sun’s harmful effects and provide ways to protect yourself this summer.
What are Melanomas?
“Melanomas are a type of cancer that most commonly occurs in the skin,” said Duke. “It develops in the cells that produce pigment in the skin, hair and eyes; these cells are known as melanocytes.”
The cancer typically begins in the skin, but can rarely appear in mucus membranes or the eyes. Because it usually occurs in the skin, it’s often easier to detect early than other types of cancer.
Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are more common than melanomas, but the latter is more dangerous because it is more likely to metastasize, or spread. In later stages of the cancer, it often reaches the lungs, liver, brain and bones and is very difficult to treat.
Causes of Melanomas
Research continues to explore the causes of melanoma, but suggests that the vast majority are linked to ultraviolet (UV) exposure.
“Approximately 90 percent of cases are believed to be connected to UV exposure,” said Duke. “This exposure can come from natural sources, like sunlight, or artificial ones, like tanning beds.”
Certain risk factors make people more susceptible to developing melanomas; these include the following:
- Many freckles
- Lots of moles
- Five or more unusual moles
- Actinic lentigines, gray-brown spots sometimes called sun spots, liver spots or age spots
- Large birthmarks
- Pale skin
- Light-colored eyes
- Light-colored or red hair
- UV exposure
- Personal or family history of skin cancer
- Organ transplants
Signs and Symptoms
Moles or spots on the skin that appear or change are the most important warning sign for skin cancer.
According to Dr. Duke, a Board Certified Dermatologist, “Any spot that is new, changes or looks different from the others is suspicious and should be examined by your doctor.”
Here are some common signs of melanoma:
- Changes in a mole
- Unusual mole or other spot on the skin
- Moles that show up later in life
- Spots that look or feel different than others
- Spots that change in shape, size or color
- Sores that don’t heal
- Redness, swelling or spread of pigment beyond the borders of a mole
- Moles that are itchy, tender or painful
The most important preventative measure is protecting your skin from excessive UV exposure. Although other risk factors also contribute to your chances for developing skin cancer, UV exposure is the only one you can control and is thought to be the crucial factor in most cases of skin cancer. Dr. Duke recommends taking these steps to help protect your skin:
- Apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to exposed skin throughout the year
- Wear clothing that covers your skin
- Wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat
- Seek shade during periods when the sun is the most intense from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Be extra careful around water, sand and snow which reflect the sun’s rays and increase your risk of sunburn
- Avoid sunburns, particularly severe ones
- Don’t use tanning beds or lie out in the sun to tan
- Watch for medications that increase the skin’s sensitivity to sun
Importance of Early Detection
As with most cancers, it’s important to catch melanoma as early as possible. With prompt treatment, it’s usually possible to remove the cancer completely, but if the cancer spreads it becomes very difficult to treat. Regular skin checks by yourself and your doctor are the best way to discover melanomas early.
Skin Checks: Know Your ABCDE’s
Melanoma month is a great time to learn about performing skin checks and to develop a habit of checking your skin regularly.
Dr. Duke says, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of regular skin checks. Many skin cancers are found by patients, so know your body and check for unusual spots or blemishes on your skin.”
You should perform self-examinations monthly and see your dermatologist once a year for a skin examination. When performing skin checks, it’s helpful to follow the ABCDE rule:
- Asymmetry – The two sides of the mole or spot don’t match
- Border – The edges are ragged, blurred, notched or irregular
- Color – The color isn’t uniform and may include more than one shade of brown or black or other colors like red, pink, blue or white
- Diameter – The mole or spot is larger than ¼ inch across, about the width of a pencil eraser
- Evolving – The mole or spot changes in color, shape or size
Talk to Your Doctor
If you notice anything unusual or concerning about a mole or other spot on your skin, talk to your doctor about it. The ABCDE rule is a great way to help you notice unusual areas but not all melanomas fit the pattern, so it’s important to discuss anything you discover that concerns you.
Surgery to remove the lesion is the most common treatment for melanomas. Thanks to their usual location on the skin, this is much easier than with other types of cancer and it’s often possible to completely remove skin cancer when it’s caught early.
Skin cancer is a serious condition, but preventative measures and early detection greatly reduce its negative impact. Use melanoma month as a time to learn more about this cancer and take steps to protect your skin.