Melanoma Signs to Watch For: Staying Safe from Skin Cancer
Protecting your skin from the sun isn’t just about preventing premature signs of aging, or even preventing the pain and possible disfigurement of having basal or squamous cell carcinomas some day lasered off of your skin. Sun protection also means reducing your chances of developing melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer which can metastasize to critical internal organs such as the lungs, liver, and brain. More and more people are choosing to cover up, using sunless tanning lotions, and of course use high-SPF sunscreen every day.
Every year nearly 100,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma, and according to the CDC, these numbers have doubled in the past three decades in the US. Melanoma is the most diagnosed cancer for people in the US between age 25 and 29, though the average age of diagnosis is 63. Over 7,000 people in the U.S. are expected to die of melanoma by the end of 2019. Melanoma is a fast-spreading cancer with most deaths occurring within two years of initial diagnosis.
Despite those grim statistics, the good news is that melanoma is one of the easiest cancers to diagnose and treat early, due to the fact that it appears on the skin and can be easily seen with the naked eye, if you know what to look for. If caught in the early stages, melanoma is easily curable.
How Can I Protect Myself Against Melanoma?
Risk factors for developing melanoma include having a family history of melanoma, having fair skin, having many moles—or freckles and moles—and having had a great deal of sun exposure, including tans, tanning bed exposure, and sunburns.
Regularly examining your skin is critical for early detection of melanoma. Melanoma develops inside the skin cells that produce melanin, the skin’s pigment which gives us our color. While evidence shows that DNA damage from UV rays can trigger mutations in the melanocytes, resulting in tumor growth, it’s important to note that genetics also play a role. Melanoma is more likely to appear in skin that has been tanned, burned, and sun-exposed, but it also may occur in places that have not been exposed to the sun, such as the soles of the feet, under the hair, and even on private parts that are typically covered from the sun.
Melanoma develops as a dark spot which may initially appear to be a normal mole, or it can begin to appear inside a pre-existing mole. This makes it very important to be familiar with your skin and its moles and freckles, and regularly examine them to watch for any changes or unusual signs. It’s also important to have your skin examined by a dermatologist annually.
Along with regular self-examination and annual visits to a dermatologist, it’s crucial to protect your skin from the sun by covering up and using a broad-spectrum UV protection sunscreen product.
What Does Melanoma Look Like?
Normal moles are typically an even, uniform color and have clear borders. They may or may not be raised. Melanoma, on the other hand, will usually have ragged, uneven edges and mottled dark colors. While any change in a mole, or skin spot, should trigger an immediate doctor visit, you can start protecting yourself by looking for the following warning signs. Keep in mind “ABCDE” as a guide.
- A for Asymmetrical: A mole that has an uneven, asymmetrical appearance, or one that develops asymmetry.
- B for Borders: The edges of the mole aren’t smooth but instead have ragged, notched or uneven borders.
- C for Color: The color is uneven, has dark spots, multiple colors, or has begun to change.
- D for Diameter: The mole or spot is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser or has grown.
- E for Evolving: Any change in the appearance of a mole’s size, shape, color, or elevation.
If you observe any of these signs or changes in a mole see a dermatologist as soon as possible.
How is Early Melanoma Treated?
Melanoma will be diagnosed following a biopsy of the area. The biopsy will include measuring the thickness and depth of the tumor as it’s critical to determine if cells have penetrated below the top layers of skin. If the tumor is determined to have reached the bottom of the skin layer, a biopsy will also be performed on the lymph nodes which drain that particular area of the body.
Treatment depends on the stage of the melanoma, with the early stage involving a simple procedure to remove the melanoma and surrounding skin to achieve clear margins. If melanoma cells are discovered in the lymph nodes, treatment becomes more complex and the prognosis is not as good.
While the diagnosis of melanoma can be frightening, it’s important to note that it’s highly treatable when caught early, and treatment for later stages of melanoma are improving every year.