The first day of summer is right around the corner. For many of us, that means outdoor BBQs, summer vacations, family picnics, and trips to the beach to look forward to. But before you fire up that grill or buy that new bathing suit, don’t forget to plan for protecting your skin. More time spent outdoors means more exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays, so take a moment now to educate yourself about skin cancer and be ready for the changing seasons.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States with roughly 9,500 new diagnoses every day. In fact, 1 in 5 Americans will develop some type of skin cancer in their lifetime! There are many types of skin cancer and although basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common, we're focusing specifically on melanoma because it is the most deadly.
What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and is projected to result in nearly 10,000 deaths in 2017. The disease results from the rapid, uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells and can manifest as a new lesion or develop within an existing mole on the skin. Ultraviolet light exposure (natural or artificial) is the most important factor to the development of most skin cancers, including melanoma, although genetic factors and immune deficiencies can also play a role.
Like most skin cancers, melanoma is highly treatable with early detection, but it can spread quickly and aggressively throughout the body, infecting lymph nodes and internal organs. When melanoma is detected before it spreads, the five-year survival rate (that is, the percentage of people alive five years after the initial diagnosis) is 98%. When it is detected after it has spread to the lymph nodes, that rate drops to 62%. If it isn't detected until it has reached internal organs, the five-year survival rate is only 18%. Clearly early detection is key!
Who is at Risk for Developing Melanoma?
Although anyone can get melanoma, certain populations are at an increased risk of developing the disease, including:
- Caucasians, especially those with fair skin and blonde or red hair who get sunburns easily. It is important to note, however, that melanoma can occur in people of color. In fact, melanoma is unfortunately often diagnosed in more advanced stages in people of color because it can be more difficult to detect.
- Individuals with more than 50 moles or moles that are large or atypical in appearance.
- Those who live close to the equator where sunlight is more intense.
- Adults over age 65, likely due to accumulated exposure to UV rays over a lifetime.
- Individuals who use tanning beds, especially women under the age of 45.
- Anyone with a history of blistering sunburns. In fact, research indicates that even a single blistering sunburn in childhood can at least double the chance of developing melanoma and experiencing five or more blistering burns during the teenage years can increase the risk by 80%!
- Individuals with a family history of melanoma.
- Individuals with a previous skin cancer diagnosis of any type.
Since melanoma can be effectively treated if it is diagnosed before it spreads, early detection is critically important. Know your skin and be on the lookout for any changes in size, shape, or color of existing moles and skin lesions and any new growths or sores. When examining moles, keep the ABCDE rule in mind to identify possible signs of melanoma:
- A - Asymmetry: one side does not match the other
- B - Border irregularity: edges that are blurry, notched, or ragged
- C - Color: moles with multiple colors or a mottled appearance
- D - Diameter: melanomas are typically over 6mm in diameter
- E - Evolving: moles that don't look like others and are growing or changing
Contact a dermatologist immediately if you notice anything out of the ordinary. If you've never seen a dermatologist, it's a good idea to have a checkup so your skin can be thoroughly examined and your doctor can determine how often you should be examined in the future. People who have had skin cancer in the past should have a thorough exam at least once a year.
The best way to prevent melanoma is to avoid UV exposure, both natural and artificial. Daily sunscreen use can cut the risk of developing melanoma in half! The American Academy of Dermatology encourages the use of a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher that is broad-spectrum (protects against both UVA and UVB rays). Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and after swimming or sweating. It is especially important to apply sunscreen to children as UV exposure during childhood closely corresponds to the development of melanoma later in life.
Wearing protective clothing and seeking shade, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are strongest, is also helpful. Be especially cautious around water, snow, and sand as they reflect UV rays and can increase the risk of getting a sunburn.
Avoid using tanning beds or sun lamps because they use ultraviolet light that can cause skin cancers and wrinkling. If you want a tanned look, ask your dermatologist about using a sunless self-tanner, but be sure to use sunscreen still! A tan doesn't protect you from the sun!
Melanoma and other skin cancers can be prevented and treated. Follow these simple protective measures to reduce your risk and enjoy the warmer weather with confidence!