The month of May is a very special month in the world of Dermatology. May is recognized as National Melanoma Awareness Month and Skin Cancer Detection and Protection Month. And one of the most important days is today on the first Monday of May. It’s Melanoma Monday.
Malignant melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, as well as one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States. Melanoma occurs within the skin cells that produce melanin, which is the pigment that gives skin its color. Unrepaired DNA in these pigment cells get damaged by the sun and genetic factors, causing the melanocytes to rapidly multiply and form malignant tumors. So what causes the unrepaired-DNA cells? These DNA cells that are unrepaired become this way because of damage caused by ultraviolet radiation (UV rays). These UV rays come from various sources like sun exposure or tanning booths. Another damaging factor to DNA can be mutations caused by genetics in susceptible individuals. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, as well as The Skin Cancer Foundation, the number of individuals diagnosed with melanoma has been increasing rapidly over the years, where one American dies every hour from melanoma and an estimated nearly 90,000 cases or melanoma will be diagnosed in the USA just in 2017. Those are frighteningly staggering statistics.
Although if detected early and removed properly, malignant melanoma does have a high chance of being cured, but when melanoma is left undetected and untreated, it can progress and become life threatening. Melanoma can spread to vital organs, such as the liver and brain, and often causes death. Melanoma is estimated to kill over 10,000 people a year. Luckily, melanoma is one of the easiest cancers to detect because the organ it affects is most often affects, the skin, is easily accessible for examination.
The first signs of melanoma can appear in existing moles or in new lesions of moles. That’s why it is important to not only wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen year-round, but also to have your skin checked at least once a year by a board-certified dermatologist.
Here at HDC, we’ve got your back, quite literally. Having a routine total body exam of the skin is important, and Dr. Honet and her team do it every day. In addition to your skin checks in the office, it is also very important to know how to check over your moles yourself and watch for any changes. The “ABCDE” signs of melanoma will allow you to notice any changes when it comes to your moles. The easy-to-remember acronym stands for Asymmetry, Border Irregularity, Color Variability, Diameter (larger than ¼ inch), and Evolving. If any of your moles have any of these characteristics or any other changes, it is extremely important to bring them to the attention of your dermatologist as soon as possible.
Prevention is key. Although you cannot change any genetic predisposition you may have for melanoma, you certainly can protect yourself from the ultraviolet rays of the sun and avoid tanning booths as well to minimize your risk factors. The most obvious form of protection is wearing sunscreen, as mentioned in our previous blog here in “To Sun or Not to Sun: Is There a Safe Way?”. Sunscreen is the main weapon and defense against the deadly melanoma when it comes to protection from the sun. We recommend an SPF of at least 30 or higher, but if you have a history of pre-cancers or skin cancers, an SPF of 45 or higher is prudent. If nothing else, a higher SPF will give you the best protection against wrinkles as well as skin cancer. Dr. Honet herself wears an SPF of 50 every day.
We have also previously warned you about the dangers of tanning bed use. You can read more in our past blog about avoiding the dangerous habits of tanning booths here in “Melanoma and the Myth of a Healthy Tan”. But it’s important to really understand how damaging tanning beds are to the health of your skin. Dr. Honet often compares tanning booths is to skin as smoking cigarettes is to lung cancer. What is shocking is that melanoma is being diagnosed in more and more young people in their teens, twenties, and thirties as a result of tanning bed use. Recent studies have found that tanning booths can increase your risk of melanoma by 60-75%. That is a shocking and very terrifying statistic! The scars left behind from surgical removals of melanoma are not always pretty, but let’s face it, when dealing with melanoma, not all are lucky enough to be left with only a scar. Unfortunately, melanoma can be very deadly when not found early. Our staff here at HDC have encountered numerous patient stories about late-stage melanoma, comforted several patients through scary melanoma diagnoses, and have seen the results of disfiguring scars and skin grafts to push us far, far away from tanning beds and straight into the arms of good, old, reliable sunscreen. Although we do appreciate the look of a deep, golden tan, we are more than happy and very willing to get a fake one from a spray tan any day. And that is exactly what we do.
When it comes down to it, sunscreen and early detection are the keys to preventing malignant melanoma and in fact, all other skin cancers. Be smart about the sun and use your sunscreen. Stay away form tanning beds. Keep an eye on your moles. And be sure to have your skin and the skin of your loved ones checked by a board-certified dermatologist on a regular basis. Keep your dermatologist close and your sunscreen even closer! They just may save your life!
Happy Melanoma Monday! And Happy, Healthy Skin!
–Senada and Dr. H