by Caroline Raftopol, PA-C
Let's teach melanoma a lesson! Melanoma is a very serious form of skin cancer, but there are easy ways to reduce your risk of this deadly disease and detect it before it can become life-threatening. Let's take it back to the old school, because when it comes to melanoma, it's elementary my dear Watson!
Learn your ABCDEs! Unlike other forms of skin cancer, melanoma can quickly spread throughout the body by a process known as "metastasis." At this stage, the melanoma may be too widespread and difficult to treat, often leading to death. Fortunately, melanoma is nearly 100% curable if caught early, and so it is important to know the early warning signs so that you or your dermatologist may detect it before it has a chance to spread. Learn this mnemonic device to check your head and body for suspicious moles:
A is for Asymmetry: a mole that is not the same on one half as it is on the other half.
B is for Borders: a mole that has irregular or jagged borders.
C is for Color: a mole that has within itself various shades of colors.
D is for Diameter: a mole that is larger than 6mm across or
has a diameter greater than a pencil eraser.
E is for Evolving: a mole that is changing in size, shape, or color.
The ugly duckling may not be a beautiful swan after all! Be sure to keep your eyes out for a mole that doesn't quite seem to fit in with the rest of the moles in a certain area, as melanoma often seems to stand out from the crowd. Also, pay attention to moles that seem to act differently than before: bleeding, itching, or becoming tender. Melanoma can occur anywhere in or on the head and body, so don't forget to check your scalp, ears, genital areas, and between your toes. They can even show up in nails (as a brown-black streak) and within the eyes, nose, and mouth!
See Spot Go! If your dermatologist decides that a mole is suspicious, he or she may numb up the skin around that mole and remove it by a procedure known as a biopsy. The specimen will then be sent to a laboratory where a specialized doctor called a dermatopathologist can analyze the mole for melanoma. If a melanoma is found, it is usually surgically removed along with an area of normal skin, via a procedure known as an excision.
When the sun is mean, use a screen! The risk of melanoma is increased with over-exposure to sunlight, especially if you are a fair-haired or light-skinned individual. Reduce your risk of melanoma by avoiding sunlight when the sun is at its peak between 10 am and 2 pm and wearing protective hats and sunglasses. Don't forget to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher and reapply at least every 2 hours or more often if you go in the water or start sweating. Also, beware of less-obvious sources of sun exposure through car windows, through clouds on overcast days, and the increased intensity of sun as it reflects off of snow or water.
Ban the Tan! The World Health Organization now considers indoor tanning devices to be in the same league as tobacco when it comes to causing cancer, and studies have found a significant increase in the risk of melanoma in those who have been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning. In fact, more than 30 states have banned the use of tanning beds by minors or at least require parental consent.
Most importantly, remember that your biggest ally in the fight against skin cancer is your dermatologist and make sure that you schedule a total-body skin exam at least once a year. With all these lessons learned, you're sure to pass with flying colors!
The American Academy of Dermatology, (2013). AAD.org. Retrieved on February 25, 2013, from http://www.aad.org/skin-conditions/dermatology-a-to-z/melanoma.