Melanoma. It isn’t the most common type of skin cancer, but it is the most deadly. It takes its name from the fact that it most often forms within melanocytes, the cells in your body that produce melanin. Though not nearly as common, melanoma may also form in your eyes and internal organs.
As with other cancers, early treatment significantly increases your chances of survival. However, if the cancer is not discovered and treated early, you risk the disease spreading to other areas of the body. When cancer spreads, it becomes much more difficult to treat and survival rates decrease.
Researchers do not yet understand the exact cause of melanoma. However, they do advise that reducing exposure to UV radiation, such as found in sunlight and tanning lamps or beds, helps reduce your risk of developing the disease.
Melanoma Risk Factors
When it comes to cancer and other diseases, there are two types of risk factors: those you can change and those you cannot. For example, you cannot change your family history or natural skin color, two factors that may increase your risk of developing melanoma (or decrease it, depending on your particular circumstances).
Risk factors that you can change include diet, exercise, smoking, recreational drugs, and alcohol. For melanoma, your greatest controllable risk factor is excessive sun exposure.
Understanding your risk factors does not guarantee you will or will not get melanoma. You may have a family history as well as numerous risk facts and never contract the disease. You may also have zero risk factors and still receive a cancer diagnosis. Even so, knowing your risk factors and doing what you can to guard against getting melanoma helps lower your chances of getting the disease while also making it easier to receive an early diagnosis. When it comes to treating cancer, the earlier the diagnosis, the better, as the disease is much easier to treat in its early stages.
Common risk factors for melanoma include:
- A family history of skin cancer
- A personal history of sunburns, particularly during early life
- A personal history of skin cancer
- Certain types of moles, or a large number of them
- Having blond or red hair
- Having blue or green eyes
- Indoor tanning, either currently or previously
- Lighter skin color
- Skin that becomes painful in the sun
- Skin that burns, freckles, or reddens easily
- Sun exposure
Preventative Steps to Reduce Melanoma Risk
Although many melanoma risks lie outside of your control, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk, each designed to limit your exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays.
First, always wear sunscreen, even during cooler months or when the weather is cloudy. Although sunscreen doesn’t filter out all UV rays, it goes a long way toward protecting your skin from the sun. Dermatologists recommend a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or higher. Apply generously, and reapply every two hours. If you are swimming, perspiring, or otherwise getting wet, reapply every hour, even when using water-resistant sunscreen.
You can also preserve your skin with protective clothing and broad-brimmed hats, which offer more protection than visors or baseball caps do. Look for clothing with a tighter weave to block out those dangerous UV rays. You might also talk to your dermatologist about photo protective clothing, which helps block UV rays. Also, protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays.
Next, avoid outdoor activities when the sun and its dangerous UV rays are at their most powerful. This varies according to the time of year and where you live, but generally falls within the hours of 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a UV index, so check to see the most dangerous times for your area. Melanoma is one of the few cancers that doesn’t discriminate based on age, but accumulated sun exposure may increase risk, so do what you can to reduce that exposure.
In addition to avoiding the sun when it’s at its most powerful, avoid tanning beds and lamps, as these also emit UV rays. You should also do all you can to get vitamin D from your diet and possibly supplements, rather than the sun. Ask your doctor for a recommendation.
Finally, talk to your doctor about any medications you take, both prescriptions and over-the-counter, that may increase your sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation.
The Importance of Early Detection
We’ve already said it but, when it comes to cancer, the importance of early detection cannot be overstated. And, when it comes to melanoma, the person most likely to detect it is you. After all, nobody knows your body better than you do.
The Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) agrees and offers a variety of resources to assist you. Start with their article, The ABCDEs of Melanoma, which explains exactly what to look for and includes photographs (nothing too graphic or disturbing) for reference. Next, check out Get Naked, MRF’s guide to self-screening; it walks you through the best ways to check your skin for any abnormalities.
You live in your skin every day, so you know what’s normal for you and what isn’t, but only if you regularly examine your skin. Once you have a baseline, you can look for new growths, or changes to existing moles. You need the help of a mirror to do a thorough check, which includes:
- Arms and hands
- Genital area and buttocks
- Legs, front and back
- Feet, including soles and the spaces between your toes
Ideally, perform your self-screen once a month, with a dermatologist performing a full examination once a year (you can easily remember if you schedule your yearly exam to occur around your birthday). With regular self-exams, you can tell your dermatologist what’s normal during your annual checkup. If you notice any changes during your monthly screening, make an appointment with your doctor right away.
Your Melanoma Prevention Checklist
- Wear a broad-spectrum, SPF30 sunscreen daily, even during the winter and when the weather is overcast
- Wear protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses
- Avoid outdoor activities during the sun’s peak hours
- Don’t use tanning beds or lamps
- Protect children and adolescents from sunburns, as a single bad sunburn doubles their chances of developing melanoma and accumulated UV exposure raises risk