It is the deadliest form of skin cancer, killing more than 8,700 people in the United States each year.
The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) defines melanoma as a disease that develops when non-repairable DNA damage to skin cells—usually caused by ultraviolet radiation—triggers genetic defects, prompting cells to rapidly multiply and form a malignant tumor. In simple words, melanoma is a skin condition caused by UV sun damage to the skin cells that contain melanin.
As serious as it may be, melanoma is also highly curable if it’s caught early enough. Here’s what you should know to protect yourself.
Weighing The Risks
We’re all at some risk for melanoma, no matter what our skin tone or genetic predisposition. But there are several factors that make some of us more likely to develop the disease.
1. Greater Sun Exposure
UVA and UVB rays are dangerous to our skin and can bring on skin cancers like melanoma. Unsurprisingly, people who live in sunny locales like Florida and Arizona are more vulnerable. And though you’ve probably read it in the papers or heard it on the news, we can’t stress its importance enough: Steer clear of tanning booths and beds, which increase your exposure to harmful rays.
2. Skin Moles
There are two kinds of moles: a) the normal small brownish spots you see on your skin and b) the atypical moles, which are irregular in shape and usually black or brown (though they can also be skin-colored, pink, red or even purple and white). The more moles you have on your body, the greater your risk for melanoma. This is because melanoma may not just resemble a mole, but can also develop from one. But, don’t worry: Just because you have a couple of freckles on your body doesn’t mean you necessarily have melanoma. Keep tabs on new moles or those that change in color, shape or size to stay a step ahead.
3. Skin Type
Dermatologists use a method called The Fitzpatrick Scale to classify skin types and their responses to UV light, measuring things like genetic disposition, reaction to sun exposure, and tanning habits. People with lighter skin tones (Types I and II) are more likely to develop skin cancer. Wear SPF on a daily basis and consult your doctor for more skincare advice based on your skin type (as below).
- Type I: Light, pale white skin that always burns and never tans.
- Type II: White, fair skin that usually burns and tans with difficulty.
- Type III: Medium, white to olive skin that will sometimes burn mildly and gradually tans to an olive tone.
- Type IV: Olive to moderate brown skin that rarely burns and tans with ease.
- Type V: Brown or dark brown skin that very rarely burns and tans very easily.
- Type VI: Black or very dark brown skin that never burns, tans easily, and is deeply pigmented.
4. Family History
One in every 10 patients diagnosed with melanoma has a family member with a history of skin cancer. What this means is that you are 50 percent more likely to develop melanoma if your mother, father or sibling had it.
What To Look Out For
Melanoma is almost always curable if it is recognized and treated in its early stages. That’s why it’s important to conduct your own full-body exam once a month—track any new moles or drastic changes in size, shape and color. Excessive itchiness, bleeding or wounds that won’t heal are also telltale signs of melanoma. There are two physician-approved strategies to help with early detection.
1. Know your ABCDEs
Look for (A)symmetry in the mole’s shape (B)orders with uneven, scalloped or notched edges (C)olors like black, red, blue, or a variety of different shades in the same mole (D)iameters larger than the size of a pencil eraser and (E)volving size, shape or elevation.
2. Beware Of The Ugly Duckling
An individual’s moles tend to resemble one another. Cancerous moles (‘ugly ducklings’) will deviate from these uniform characteristics, either by size, shade or color.
Preventing The Problem
You should always wear a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher, no matter what season it is or how long you’ll be in the sun. Think of it as part of your daily skincare routine. But keeping your skin healthy doesn’t stop there. Here’s what else you can do to prevent melanoma and other types of skin cancer:
- Learn to love the shade! Stay out of the sun as much as possible, especially between 10am and 4pm, when rays are at their strongest.
- Don’t let your skin burn. Avoid tanning and tanning booths.
- Cover up with clothes, broad-rimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- If you’re going to be outside for an extended period of time, use water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen, with an SPF of 30 or more.
- Smooth on one ounce (2tbsp) of sunblock 30 minutes before you go outside and then reapply every two hours, or right after swimming and excessive sweating.
- Newborns should stay out of the sun and sunscreen should be used on babies older than six months.
- Give yourself monthly skin checks and make an appointment for a professional exam once a year.