We are living through an unprecedented epidemic of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The CDC reports that the incidence of melanoma has doubled in the U.S. in the remarkably short time of 30 years. This frightening trend is even worse in younger adults and children: the rate of melanoma in those under the age of 40 is up 250% over the same time. Young women appear to be at even higher risk than males.
Why is this a concern? Melanoma represents only a small percentage of all skin cancers. Only 2% of skin cancers are melanomas, but they are responsible for the majority of deaths from skin cancer, nearly 10,000 in 2011.
Why is melanoma so dangerous? Unlike other skin cancers, melanoma grow rapidly, often over a matter of just months. The deeper a melanoma grows, the more likely it is to metastasize, to “spread” into other areas of the body, via the bloodstream and lymphatic system. Once a melanoma has spread, the prognosis is extremely poor, with the vast majority of patients succumbing often in just months. New treatments hold increased promise, but at this time still typically extend survival, but do not cure the cancer.
As a result, early detection of melanoma is critical. If identified early, melanomas can be cured by simple surgical removal, in many cases done in the office with just local anesthesia. A delay of just a few months may be enough to allow the melanoma to progress to an incurable, fatal cancer.
So how can we protect ourselves? You should always be aware of melanoma risks, symptoms, and treatments. Melanoma can strike at any time, particularly for those with higher risk factors for developing the disease. So, with summer (and the sun exposure that comes with it) just around the corner, it is important to know the latest statistics and risk factors, and what to do to lower those risks for yourself and your family.
Stats About Melanoma
- One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in life.
- Five million Americans receive treatment for some form of skin cancer every year.
- Current estimates project that almost 140,000 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year alone—and nearly 10,000 may die of the condition this year too.
- Invasive melanoma will be the fifth most common cancer in men and the seventh most common cancer in women in 2015.
- Broken down by complexion type, Caucasians suffer melanoma at a rate of 25/10,000 people, compared to just 4/10,000 for Hispanics and 1/10,000 for African-Americans.
Melanoma Risk Factors
- A light complexion: People with pale skin, blonde or red hair, and light-colored eyes can sunburn and freckle easily because they have less melanin pigment in their skin to protect them from cancer-causing UV rays.
- Sunburn history: If you experienced frequent sunburns in adolescence and childhood, your risk for melanoma is higher.
- High UV ray exposure: Frequent, long-term sun exposure, tanning bed use, and living at a higher altitude or near the equator all increase melanoma risks.
- Moles: Having more than 50 regular moles, or any large, irregularly shaped, strangely colored moles indicates a higher risk.
- Family history of melanoma: If a parent or sibling has had melanoma, be particularly aware of melanoma symptoms.
- Weakened immune system: People who have had organ transplants or are positive for HIV/AIDS, etc. run a higher risk.
Lowering Your Melanoma Risk
- Sun exposure is the number one controllable risk for melanoma. Excessive sun exposure damages skin cells and can trigger cancerous changes. Sunburns are particularly devastating: even a few blistering sunburns in adolescence may lead to an increased risk of melanoma over the rest of your life. So avoid excessive or intense sun exposure.
- If sun exposure is unavoidable, make sunscreen a daily part of your skin care regimen.
- Wear hats and cover-ups, particularly one with UV protection if you will be in the sun for a prolonged period of time. “UPF” (ultraviolet protective fabric) clothing is extremely effective, more so than even the best sunscreens.
- Stay in the shade during the most sun-intensive hours of the day: 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Use umbrellas, beach tents, stay under the trees.
- A more recent phenomenon appears to play a major role in the increase in melanoma, especially in younger women: Avoid tanning beds! These devices allow people to get enormous doses of ultraviolet light, often 52 weeks a year. There is a clear association with the skyrocketing incidence of melanoma.
- A sore that doesn’t seem to heal.
- New spots or moles.
- Moles changing shape or color or spreading beyond their normal boundaries. Very dark moles, that have a “jet black,” or “so dark they look purple” coloration, are particularly concerning.
- Redness, itching, bleeding, oozing, or swelling around a mole.
Along with good sun sense, your best protection from melanoma is to have a comprehensive skin check by a trained skin specialist. For more tips on avoiding melanoma, understanding your personal risk for melanoma, and treatment for any suspicious spots, contact Avail Dermatology for an appointment today at 770-251-5111.