You might guess breast, lung or prostate cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., but it turns out that skin cancer is the hands-down winner. The upshot: It's also one of the easiest cancers to prevent.
Although melanoma only accounts for one percent of all skin cancers, it results in the most skin cancer deaths. "Melanoma is dangerous because it's subtle. Unless you have someone looking at your skin on a routine basis, you might not notice it until a more advanced stage," says Juliana Meyer, MD, FACS, breast and melanoma surgeon at Franciscan Physician Network Breast Specialists Indianapolis.
Where Melanoma Could Be Hiding
Melanoma frequently appears on women’s extremities (think: arms and legs), and on the torso for men, reports Dr. Meyer. But, it's important to regularly check your entire body because melanoma can lurk in overlooked areas, such as:
- Around the edges of the scalp and underneath the hair
- On or near the ear, especially the space between the ear and the hairline
- Underneath fingernails and toenails
- In the crease of the buttocks
- On the soles of the feet
Skin Cancer Signs
Two easy methods can help you determine whether a mole or freckle might be problematic, says Dr. Meyer. First, there is the “ugly duckling sign.” When you look at all your moles and freckles, does one look odd or different or uglier than the rest?
Another way to evaluate a spot, is by following the “ABCDE Rule”:
- A for asymmetry. Does the spot have a mismatched or odd shape?
- B for border. Does it have an irregular or jagged border?
- C for color. Is the color uniform or does it contain multiple colors (e.g. gray, black, purple, blue)? Or, has any portion of the spot lost color?
- D is for diameter. Has it grown or changed in size? Or, is it bigger than the size of a pencil eraser?
- E is for evolving. Has a mole changed in any way (including size, shape, color or starting to itch or bleed)?
If you notice a troubling spot, make an appointment with a dermatologist.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, early detection of melanoma makes a difference. There is a 99% chance of a 5-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early. The survival rate drops to 65% if the disease reaches the lymph nodes and to 25% if it spreads to distant organs.
Skin Cancer Risk Factors
The Skin Cancer Foundation noted that skin cancers like melanoma have damaged DNA mutations in skin cells that lead to uncontrolled growth of these cells. UV rays from the sun or tanning beds damage DNA in your skin cells. Your immune system repairs some of this damage but not all. Over time, the remaining DNA damage can lead to mutations that cause skin cancer. Many other factors also play a role in increasing the risk for melanoma, including genetics family history, skin type or color, hair color, freckling and number of moles on the body.
You are more likely to get skin cancer, including melanoma, if you have these risk factors:
- Fair skin
- A history of sunburns
- A family history of melanoma
- A greater number of moles
- A weakened immune system
- Increased exposure to UV rays from spending time in the sun or in tanning beds
- Increased exposure to UV rays due to living closer to the equator or at a higher elevation
If you’ve been diagnosed, your treatment choices depend on the stage of the cancer, the location of the tumor and your overall health. According to the American Cancer Society, early-stage melanomas can often be treated with surgery alone, but more advanced cancers often require other treatments. Sometimes more than one type of treatment is used.
Ask your doctor to clearly explain the options that might work best for you, including details about the benefits and risks.
Preventing Melanoma And Other Skin Cancers
Since the vast majority of skin cancer is caused by exposure to UV rays, using sun protection is key to preventing melanoma. Applying a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher on a daily basis reduces your risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent.
“It’s important to protect yourself and your children from the sun,” advises Dr. Meyer. “We’re currently seeing an upswing of melanoma among folks in their forties. That’s because they all got burned as kids at a time when we didn’t know as much about sun protection. We were also taught that a tan looked “healthy” which we know now is clearly not the case.”
Self-exams are important, but don’t neglect the importance of having a doctor give your moles a good once over. “Schedule an annual appointment with a dermatologist to check all your moles and freckles, especially if you rank high in the risk factors,” adds Dr. Meyer, “Your best defense is identifying melanoma early when it’s easier to treat.”
Melanoma: Frequently Asked Questions
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