15 Jun Melanoma Awareness: How to Lower Your Risk
If you’re like most people, then you spend a lot of time under the summer sun. Before you head outside to enjoy the beautiful weather, make sure that you take steps to protect yourself from skin cancer. Melanoma is not as common as basal cell carcinoma (BCC) or squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), but it’s more dangerous because it’s more likely to spread beyond the epidermis. However, taking steps to protect your skin this summer can reduce your risk of developing melanoma.
What is melanoma?
The skin consists of three layers, the epidermis, dermis, and subcutis. The epidermis is the uppermost layer of skin, and it contains melanocytes, which are the cells that produce melanin to create the tan and brown colors of skin. When the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays hit your skin, it produces extra melanin to protect the deeper layers from damage. Although tans are trendy, they’re not actually a good thing because they mean that your skin is responding to trauma from the UV rays.
Over time, UV damage can make the DNA in your skin cells mutate. This mutated DNA then triggers the cells to replicate out of control, which causes cancer tumors. When cancer originates in melanocytes, it’s called melanoma. If melanoma isn’t detected and treated quickly, it can spread to the dermis and cutis, and then potentially to other body systems.
Did you know that:
- More people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the US each year than all other types of cancer combined.
- Having 5 or more sunburns throughout your life doubles your risk for developing melanoma, but it only takes one blistering sunburn to double your chances.
- Approximately 6,200 new cases of melanoma occur in the US every year because of tanning bed use, and women who have tanned indoors are six times more likely to develop melanoma in their twenties than women who never tan indoors.
- The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that there will be just over 196,000 new cases of melanoma in the US in 2020. Of those, about 100,000 will be invasive, meaning that they’ll penetrate layers of the skin below the epidermis.
- The 5-year survival rate for melanoma that is detected early is 99%!
- Daily use of a sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher cuts your melanoma risk in half!
Risk factors for melanoma
A risk factor is something that raises your chances of developing melanoma. Having risk factors does not guarantee that you’ll develop melanoma, nor does an absence of risk factors mean that you won’t get it. Some factors, such as family history, are, unfortunately, out of your hands. However, understanding your risk factors helps you take steps to lower the ones that you can control.
Some common risk factors for melanoma are:
- A propensity to develop moles – though the majority of moles are benign (noncancerous), people who develop many moles are more likely to develop melanoma than people who do not have very many moles.
- Frequent or extended UV exposure – generally, the more time you spend in the sun, the greater your risk of developing melanoma, especially if you’ve had numerous sunburns.
- Fair, light skin tones, especially if you freckle and burn easily.
- Red or blonde hair, and green or blue eyes.
- A family history of melanoma – your risk is significantly higher if a parent or sibling has had melanoma. However, this risk factor is complicated because families often have similar sun exposure and protection habits (or lack of), plus similar skin, hair, and eye colors.
- A personal history of skin cancer – if you’ve had one incident of melanoma, your chances for a second are higher. Also, having BCC or SCC increases your melanoma risk.
- A compromised immune system – if you’ve had an organ transplant or an illness or disease, your body will struggle to fight off cancers of all kinds, including melanoma.
- Advanced age – melanoma is most common in older adults, but it’s possible to develop this type of cancer at any age. In fact, melanoma is one of the most common cancers among women under 30.
Melanoma signs & symptoms
Since melanoma occurs in the melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin, melanomas are often brown or black. However, they can also be pink, tan, or white. According to the American Cancer Society, men often develop melanoma on their chest and back, while women develop it on their legs.
Other common areas for melanoma are the face and neck. People can also develop melanoma in the eyes, mouth, or genitals, but those locations are less common. People of color have more melanin, and thus better protection from skin cancers of all types compared to fair-skinned people. However, they can still develop melanoma, especially in areas of their skin with less melanin, such as the palms of the hands and nail beds.
It’s a myth that most melanomas begin with a mole. In fact, only 20 – 30% of melanomas start from a mole, while the other 70 – 80% begin on “normal-looking” skin. Changes in a mole’s size, shape, color, or texture are signals that should send you to a dermatologist immediately. Another tell-tale sign is an “ugly duckling” mole, which is a mole that looks different from any other moles or spots that you have.
Another method for detecting suspicious changes in your skin is to use ABCDE:
A = Asymmetry: when one half of a mole or spot looks different than the other half.
B = Border: the edges of the mole or spot are scalloped, notched, or uneven rather than smooth.
C = Color: the mole or spot is different shades of the same color, or there is red, white, or pink in an otherwise brown or black spot.
D = Diameter: the mole or spot is 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser) or more. However, melanoma can also be smaller than 6 millimeters.
E = Evolving: the mole or spot is changing in size, shape, color, or texture.
Other warning signs include:
- A sore that will not heal or that goes away but comes back again.
- Redness or swelling in the skin around a mole or spot.
- Changes in sensation in or around a mole or spot, including itching, tenderness, or pain.
- Changes in the surface of a mole or spot, such as scaling, oozing, or bleeding.
Keep in mind that not all melanomas present with these symptoms. If you notice any change in your skin, even if it’s not listed here, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist right away.
How to prevent melanoma
In the US, we spend about $3.3 billion annually to treat melanoma. Instead of waiting until you contract this type of cancer, take steps now to reduce your risk this summer. Some effective strategies are to:
- Avoid tanning beds altogether.
- Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily, even if you’ll be mostly indoors because UV rays can still pass through windows.
- The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends keeping infants under six months old out of the sun entirely since their sensitive skin isn’t well-suited to sunscreen.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours while outdoors, or more often when swimming or sweating excessively (refer to the specific instructions on your own sunscreen as each brand differs slightly).
- Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the back of your hands (a very common location for BCC and SCC!) and to wear a lip balm with SPF.
- Avoid being outdoors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest.
- When you’re outside, wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and pants with an ultraviolet protective factor (UPF) of 50 or more, a broad-brimmed hat that covers the face, ears, and neck, and UV blocking eyewear.
- Try to seek shade whenever possible.
- Perform a skin cancer self-exam each month and schedule a yearly appointment with your dermatologist, especially if you have several melanoma risk factors.
Notice a change? Come see us!
Early detection is the key to curing melanoma, so come see us right away if you have a concern about a mole or a spot on your skin. We’d also love to get your annual skin exam on the books, so reach out today!
Cumberland Dermatology is passionate about skin health. If you have questions about a suspicious spot on your skin this summer, call (615) 237-8320 to schedule your appointment.