Get answers to your Melanoma questions.
Does your summer schedule include tanning time, or a lot of time out in the sun? If so, take note: According to the Academy of Dermatology, more than one million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed this year. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, will account for approximately 45,000-50,000 of these diagnoses. Although there are many skin cancer risk factors, prolonged unprotected sun exposure almost always plays some role.
Take steps to lower your and your family’s risk of skin cancer while still having fun in the sun. Dr. Marcia Driscoll, a dermatologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, provides the information you need to improve your skin cancer IQ.
Is There Such a Thing as a "Healthy" Tan?
What many people do not realize is that the tan color appearing on the surface of their skin after they sunbathe or visit the local tanning salon is actually an injury response from their skin cells.
"Tanning affects the DNA of cells," says Dr. Driscoll. "This DNA sends a signal to the cell to make pigment, also known as melanin. Making melanin is the cells’ response to injury. So, while the tan may look healthy, the skin cells are actually signaling that they’ve been injured."
Recently, however, some researchers have been arguing that exposure to the sun’s UV rays can have positive effects on people’s overall health. They argue that sun exposure helps human beings generate Vitamin D, which is essential for promoting calcium absorption and bone growth within the human body.
"Although there has been a lot of discussion about the sun’s ability to help humans generate Vitamin D, most dermatologists agree that it only takes a minimal amount of sun to do this," says Dr. Driscoll. "We do not recommend sunbathing as a primary source of generating Vitamin D in the human body."
Dr. Driscoll also notes that the effects of UV radiation from unprotected sun exposure and tanning beds are cumulative.
"Repeated tanning, such as when one goes to a tanning salon and purchases a package of sessions, causes repeated injury to the skin cells," says Dr. Driscoll. "At the beginning, the cells can repair themselves, but over time they become unable to repair the repeated damage. That’s when cancers, like melanoma, come about."
What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is one of three types of skin cancer that often first manifests itself in the form of a new or changing mole on a person’s body. It originates from pigment cells, which are known as melanocytes. Unlike other moles a person may already have, a mole that signals melanoma is often asymmetrical in appearance, reflects several colors, is irregular in shape, or large in size (bigger than a pencil eraser).
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, melanoma is the second most common cancer among people 15-29 years of age. It is also the most deadly form of skin cancer, killing one person every hour.
Dr. Driscoll warns that there are multiple risk factors for melanoma.
"If the person has a family history of melanoma, very fair skin that causes him or her to always burn in the sun and never tan, many pre-existing moles (more than 25 or 50), or a prolonged history of unprotected sun exposure, that person’s chances of being diagnosed with melanoma greatly increase."
How Is Melanoma Diagnosed?
More than twenty years ago, a group of New York University dermatologists proposed a method to help doctors and patients determine whether or not a patient’s mole could potentially be cancerous. This method is known as the ABCD’s – or more recently, the ABCDE’s – of identifying melanoma.
A – Asymmetry
B – Border (irregularity)
C – Color (more than one color)
D – Diameter (greater than 6 mm or the size of a pencil eraser)
E – Evolution (change in an existing mole)
Dr. Driscoll stresses that people check their moles regularly and report suspicious looking moles to their doctors.
"Patients have to be alert to any new growth that they haven’t seen before that concerns them," states Dr. Driscoll. "We don’t want them to panic, but there are some things they should be aware of."
Other types of growths can also be warning signs of melanoma. For instance, one type of melanoma – in contrast to the easily diagnosed changing mole – looks like a hard, pink bump, and is much more difficult to diagnose. Non-healing growths or those growths that bleed, crust over, heal, and bleed again can also be a sign of skin cancer. And, even though it is quite rare, a mole that begins to itch might also need to be checked by a doctor to ensure it is noncancerous (benign).
Another thing to note is, "Individuals beyond 25-30 years of age will not form new moles," says Dr. Driscoll. "As a result, if persons in this age group discover a new growth, it may be a particular cause for concern."
How Can I Protect Myself?
The best thing people can do to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful UV rays is avoid prolonged sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest. During this time, people should remain in the shade or wear protective clothing – for example, broad-rimmed hats, long pants, and shirts with sleeves – if sun exposure is unavoidable.
"Some manufacturers produce swim shirts with built-in UV protection for kids. This clothing provides the ideal alternative to sunscreen for children because, as any parent knows, trying to reapply sunscreen as often as necessary can be quite difficult," says Dr. Driscoll.
In addition, for those people who cannot avoid prolonged sun exposure, dermatologists also recommend applying a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UV-A and UV-B rays.
"For many years it was thought that UV-A rays only caused aging, while UV-B rays caused burning," says Dr. Driscoll. "As a result, UV-A rays were not felt to be harmful. However, we now know that UV-A rays penetrate more deeply into the skin, leading to skin cancer and melanoma."
When shopping for sunscreen, dermatologists like Dr. Driscoll recommend choosing one that contains an ingredient known as Avobenzone, which blocks UV-A rays. This sunscreen should be applied between 15-30 minutes before sun exposure.
By: Malissa Carroll