Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, and although it occurs for several reasons, the most preventable cause is exposure to the sun.
If you were born in 1935, you might be the one of 1,500 who develops an aggressive form of skin cancer called invasive melanoma sometime during your life. But if you were born in 2000, your chances spike to 1 in 75. If the trend continues, children born in 2010 could have a 1 in 50 shot of developing it. Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, and although it occurs for several reasons, the most preventable cause is exposure to the sun. Tans and sunburns are signs that your skin is damaged. Learn the risks. Protect yourself.
1. Melanoma is skin cancer, and nobody dies of skin cancer, do they?
Wrong. There are three types of skin cancer:
- squamous cell carcinoma
- basal cell carcinoma
Melanoma is the most aggressive type of cancer of the three, and it kills nearly 8,000 Americans each year. That's nearly one person every hour. Melanoma is the most common cancer in white women, ages 25 to 29, and white men in Michigan, ages 25 to 44. But it is also one of the most curable if it's detected and treated early.
2. I'm African-American. I can't get melanoma.
Yes, you can. Although melanoma occurs less frequently in people who have darker skin, anyone can have it. Generally speaking, however, you are at greater risk for skin cancer if you have fair skin, freckles, blue or green eyes, or red or blond hair. Although the exposure to the sun is one risk factor everyone can control, it is not melanoma's only cause. The most common locations where melanoma occurs in African-Americans are the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and underneath nails.
3. I have a strange-looking mole. Is it melanoma?
Anytime you have a changing mole, or one that looks different than it did before, you should go see your family doctor or dermatologist. Melanoma is highly curable if it's discovered and treated early. That's why it's important to do monthly self-exams so that you notice changes in your skin. Find an area of your home with bright light and a full-length mirror. Inspect your entire body, using a hand mirror to see parts of the body that are difficult to reach. Check your scalp by blowing your hair upward with a hair dryer.
4. What am I looking for during these self-exams?
Learn the "ABCDs" of melanoma.
- Assymetry: - Draw an imaginary line through your mole. Do both sides look alike? If not, see your doctor.
- Border: - Look at the outside edge of your mole. Are its edges sharp and easy to distinguish from surrounding skin? If the edges look ragged or fuzzy, see your doctor.
- Color: - Check the color of your mole. Is it the same throughout or does it vary with shades of dark brown, black, white, red or blue? If it isn't the same color throughout, see your doctor.
- Difference: - Have your moles changed in size, shape or color? Are they suddenly itchy? Most moles on a person's body share a common look; did you find one that looks different than the others? Do you have a new, changing mole or suspicious looking patch of skin? Any time you notice a difference in moles or on other parts of your skin, see your doctor.
View / download our Self-Screening Skin Card for pictures and descriptions of exactly what you should be looking for.
5. Can I get skin cancer on parts of my body that aren't exposed to the sun?
Yes. Although we often don't think of the skin as an organ in the same way as we would the heart or the liver, it's actually the body's largest organ. That's why it's very important to check every inch of your skin, even in the genital region, underneath the breast line and between your toes. Remember, exposure to the sun is not the only cause of melanoma, just the most preventable one.
6. Can a doctor tell by looking at my mole whether I have melanoma?
No, in order to confirm a skin cancer diagnosis, your doctor will need to biopsy your lesion, or "spot." Your doctor will remove the lesion and then send it to a lab to determine whether it contains cancerous cells.
7. Can it be cured?
The key to curing melanoma is detecting it at its earliest stages when it is highly curable in 95 percent to 99 percent of cases. Melanoma is treated surgically. At the time of your surgery, your doctor may choose to perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy if the risk of spread to the lymph nodes is high. In this procedure, your doctor will inject a dye near the site of the cancer. The dye travels to the lymph node where the cancer is most likely to spread first. Your doctor will then remove that "sentinel" lymph node to examine it for cancer cells. Once the results are in, your doctor will plan for further treatment if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.
8. Could surgery cause my cancer to spread?
No. Many years ago, before good diagnostic testing was available, people with cancer would undergo surgery without knowing the full extent of the disease. Because the cancer was not diagnosed until it was in its very late stages, people would incorrectly assume the surgery had spurred the cancer's growth. Cancer spreads naturally with time; that's why it's so important to catch it and treat it early.
9. How can I prevent melanoma?
Protect yourself from the sun. The main preventable cause of melanoma is exposure to ultraviolet light. This is even more important if you have relatives who have had the disease. Limit the time you spend in the sun, particularly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Use sunscreen or cover up with clothing anytime you are outdoors.
10. What do the SPF ratings on sunscreens mean and which one should I use to protect myself?
Sunscreens carry Sun Protection Factors, or SPFs, ranging from 2 to 60. The SPF tells you how long you can stay in the sun beyond what your skin's natural tolerance level is. For example, if you usually burn after 10 minutes in the sun, an SPF 15 sunscreen will allow you to stay outside 15 times longer, or 150 minutes, before your skin turns red.
Everyone should use a sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15. If your skin changes color more quickly, use one with a higher SPF. Be sure to reapply it frequently, particularly if you've been swimming or sweating. Also, use enough sunscreen to adequately cover all exposed body parts. For most adults, this would equate to about a shot glass of sunscreen. Ask someone to help you apply the sunscreen to ensure difficult-to-reach areas are fully protected. Don't forget the nooks and crannies, like backs of your ears.
Also, keep in mind that clothing only provides limited protection from the sun, particularly light-weight, summer clothing. For example, a white T-shirt only provides you an SPF of 8. If you are planning to be in the sun for a long time or know that you are particularly sensitive, you may want to consider clothing made of special fabrics that provide an SPF of 30. You can also treat your own clothes with an additive in your washing machine that will provide you with SPF 30 protection. These products are often sold alongside fabric dyes.
11. I've heard that getting a base tan is a good way to prevent sunburn. Is that true?
No. Any protective value that may be gained is offset by the damage done by the tan itself. Anytime your skin changes color - whether it's a tan or a burn - it's an indication of damage. That damage, which is cumulative, increases your risk for melanoma as well as other types of skin cancer.
12. Are tanning salons a safer alternative?
No. There is no safe tan. Remember, anytime your skin changes color, it's an indication that your skin has been damaged and your melanoma risk has increased.
13. Are chemical tanning products safe?
Some of them. Tanning sprays and lotions that apply a tint of color to the skin are safe. These products usually contain a chemical called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). However, be sure to avoid those that contain tyrosinase, a chemical that stimulates your skin to produce a tan on its own.
14. But aren't sunburns just part of being a kid in the summer?
They shouldn't be. Parents need to be especially vigilant and ensure that their children wear sunscreen at all times when they are outdoors. Studies have shown that most people get about 80 percent of their exposure to the sun before age 18. This exposure can cause permanent damage that accumulates over the years and leads to melanoma.
Make an appointment or have your questions answered
The Skin Cancer Patient Care Center is staffed by oncology nurses and is just a phone call away to answer your questions or to assist you in making an appointment.
Call us at 1-800-865-1125 or e-mail us to make an appointment or for the answers to any questions you may have.
Continue reading about melanoma and skin cancer prevention
- Protecting our skin from the potential for skin cancer
- UM Skin Check App
- Treatment options: When diagnosed with skin cancer
- Revisiting your genetics -- is one appointment enough?