Melanoma and Skin Cancer: Are You at Risk?
By L. Markham McHenry, D.O.
You might think only fair-skinned people who sit out in the sun all day — sans sunscreen — get skin cancer.
But the truth is that skin cancer can happen to anyone, regardless of age, skin color, or lifestyle. It can happen whether you spent your summers at the beach as a child or just recently took up gardening as a hobby.
Skin cancer is one of the most important things I speak with my patients about, especially because just miles away, Paradise Valley is one of the highest per capita cities for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
What is melanoma?
Melanoma occurs when the pigment-producing cells in the skin grow rapidly. Melanoma can develop in a mole you already have or suddenly occur elsewhere on your skin.
It has been dubbed the “killer” of all skin cancers. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, nearly 10,000 people will die from melanoma this year alone, and about 74,000 new cases will be diagnosed. Melanoma has been on the rise for the past 30 years and is likely to continue.
If you’re like me, you probably spent your summers as a child outdoors riding your bike, playing at the beach, and swimming in the pool. And chances are, your parents never put sunscreen on you.
Having multiple sunburns as a child, especially if they were on your torso, is by far one of the biggest risk factors for developing melanoma. In fact, just one blistering sunburn as a child or a teenager more than doubles your risk for melanoma.
Other risk factors include:
- Family history of melanoma – 1 in 10 people who are diagnosed with melanoma also have a family member with a history of it.
- More than 50 moles or large or unusual moles.
- Caucasian people are more likely to develop it.
- Redheads or blondes or those with blue or green eyes have a higher risk.
- A history of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma.
- A history of another form of cancer such as breast or thyroid cancer.
- Organ transplant recipients or immune suppression therapy.
Excessive ultraviolet (UV) radiation, either from the sun or from tanning beds, is directly linked with all skin cancers, including melanoma. There are some forms of melanoma that can show up in areas of the body that are not exposed to the sun, but these are thought to be caused by genetic factors or immune system deficiencies.
Melanoma is curable and preventable.
Melanoma is curable when it’s detected early. The five-year-survival rate for melanoma when detected early and treated before it has spread to the lymph nodes is 97 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
Here are some things you can do to prevent melanoma:
- Use sunscreen everyday. Whether you’re spending a day at the beach or just walking to work, put a shot glass worth of sunscreen all over your body every day. Choose a sunscreen that states “broad spectrum UVA/UVB” and has an SPF of at least 30.
- Nix the fake tan. Tanning beds are just as dangerous as the sun, so apply a self-tanner instead.
- Cover up. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and consider UPF clothing.
- Seek the shade. When possible, try to get out of the sun to reduce your exposure.
- Get checked. Monthly at-home self-exams and yearly skin cancer screenings at your physician’s office are a good idea, but you and your doc might still be missing suspicious moles. Technology like FotoFinder Digital Mole Mapping is much more comprehensive and reliable.
Sources: The American Academy of Dermatology and The Skin Cancer Foundation