Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the US, affecting about one in five Americans by age 70. In fact, more people in the US are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. Fortunately, skin cancer is highly curable if detected early and treated properly.
Skin cancer starts in the three main types of skin cells: basal cells, squamous cells and melanocytes. Melanocytes, found in the skin’s middle layer, or epidermis, make the pigment melanin, which gives your skin its color.
Melanoma skin cancer develops when the DNA in melanocytes is damaged, usually by the ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds, and that triggers mutations in the genes. These mutations cause the melanocytes to grow out of control and form tumors.
Melanoma is less common than other types of skin cancers. It is almost always curable if caught and treated early, but if allowed to grow and spread, it can be deadly. In 2019, more than 192,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma, and more than 7,000 are expected to die from it.
Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body, but it is more likely to show up in certain areas. In men, it is most commonly found on the chest and back, while in women, the legs are most often affected. It also commonly occurs on the face and neck.
The exact cause of the genetic mutations responsible for the development of melanoma is still being studied. But researchers do know there are certain factors that put you at a higher risk for this skin cancer. These factors include:
- Having a lot of freckles, moles, age spots or large birth marks
- Having light skin that burns easily as well as light-colored eyes
- Having red or light-colored hair
- Being older (Risk increases with age.)
- Having a personal or family history of melanoma
- Getting a lot of sun exposure
According to the American Cancer Society, unusual moles, sores, lumps, marks or changes in the way an area of the skin looks or feels may be a sign of melanoma or another skin cancer. These changes may also be a warning that skin cancer might occur.
This biggest warning signs of melanoma are a new spot on the skin and an existing spot that’s changing. There are two common ways to evaluate a spot on your skin. One is the ugly duckling sign. Does the spot in question look different from all the other spots on your skin? If so, you should have it checked by a dermatologist.
The other way to evaluate a spot is the ABCDE method. Look for the following features in a mole or spot on your skin:
There are several ways to treat melanoma. These include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses medicines to stimulate your immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively. Several types of immunotherapy are available to treat melanoma.
Your best bet is to prevent melanoma in the first place. There are a few steps you can take toward that goal. An import first step is to limit your exposure to ultraviolet radiation. That includes exposure to the sun’s rays and tanning beds.
If you have to be in the sun, try to find shade between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s at its highest intensity. And before you go out, remember this catchphrase “Slip! Slop! Slap” and Wrap. Slip on a shirt, Slop on sunscreen, Slap on a hat and Wrap on sunglasses to protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them.
And don’t forget to regularly examine your skin for any new, unusual or changing moles or spots. Anything out of the ordinary that you discover should be further examined by your doctor or a dermatologist.
Take care of your skin, and it will take care of you.