By Sandi Stromberg, Staff Writer
Everyone looks forward to summer, especially in northern climates when the snow and ice melt and we can spend more time outdoors. School's out. The children are home. There's time for swimming and barbecues, picnics and family reunions.
But it's also a time to pay attention to our bodies and the sun. While experts say we need 15 minutes of sun a day to absorb enough vitamin D, too much sun can have adverse consequences, like skin cancer, the most dangerous of which is melanoma.
A cancer that occurs in melanocytes, the cells that give skin its color, melanoma represents about 3% of all skin cancers. However, it has the highest death rate of all types and is more likely to metastasize (spread).
Be aware of the symptoms
The symptoms of skin cancer vary from person to person and may include a:
• Change on the skin, such as a new spot or one that changes in size, shape or color
• Sore that doesn't heal
• Spot or sore that changes in sensation, itchiness, tenderness or pain
• Small, smooth, shiny, pale or waxy lump
• Firm red lump that bleeds or develops a crust
• Flat, red spot that is rough, dry or scaly
Many of these symptoms are not cancer, but if you notice one or more of them for more than two weeks, see your doctor.
Pay attention to risks
Certain characteristics may put you at risk if you:
• Spend too much time in the sun or have a history of severe blistering sunburn. Artificial tanning beds carry the same risk for melanoma as natural sunlight.
• Are fair haired with light skin and blue eyes and have a strong tendency to sunburn.
• Have a history of melanoma. The risk for a second case is 3% to 7%, much higher than the general population.
• Have a large number of benign moles.
• Carry a specific gene or gene mutation that has been identified as playing a potential role in the development of melanoma.
• Have an atypical mole and melanoma syndrome (AMS), which can indicate increased risk.
Learn how to reduce your risk
To reduce your risk, MD Anderson experts suggest that you:
• Use sunscreen. Choose an SPF 15 or higher, put it on 30 minutes before going outside and follow product directions for reapplication.
• Find shade. Look for shady areas under an umbrella or tarp. Better yet, stay indoors between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
• Cover up. Wear a shirt or other cover-up to protect your skin from the sun.
• Wear a hat. Pick one with a large brim to protect the ears and neck.
• Put on sunglasses. Buy sunglasses to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays.
• Protect your children. Babies under 6 months of age should be completely shielded from direct sun exposure. Apply sunscreen to infants over 6 months of age, and teach older children to make applying sunscreen a regular habit before they go out to play.
• Avoid the use of tanning beds or other artificial sunlight sources. Tanning beds are not safe alternatives to the sun.
The ABCs of early melanoma detection
Melanoma appears most frequently on the trunk area in fair-skinned men and on the lower leg in fair-skinned women. In dark-skinned people, melanoma appears most frequently on the palms, the soles of the feet and the skin under nails. If caught early, melanoma is potentially curable.
Be aware of change and new growths on your body. The ABCs of melanoma provide a good guideline:
• Asymmetry of lesion: Are the sides of the lesion different?
• Border irregularity: Are the edges notched as opposed to smooth?
• Color variation: Is the lesion a mixture of black, blue, red and white?
• Diameter: Is the diameter greater than six millimeters? (Most melanomas are larger than the head of a pencil.)
• Evolution: Is the lesion growing in width or height?
• Feeling: Has the sensation around a mole or spot changed?
These recommendations serve as a guide. Promptly show your doctor any suspicious skin area, non-healing sore or change in a mole or freckle. If exam results suggest cancer, more extensive diagnostic tests should be conducted.
MD Anderson resources:
Skin cancer Q&A
Just the Facts: Skin Cancer (PDF)
Melanoma: A Pathfinder
Advances in the treatment of melanoma (Patient Power Audio Podcast)
Sun safety, skin cancer and teens (Cancer Newsline Audio Podcast)
Melanoma and skin cancer with Dr. Patrick Hwu (Video)
Melanoma and Dr. Patrick Hwu with his patient, David (video)
Melanoma survivor David Ess (Video)
Melanoma Cancer Awareness Month
By Sandi Stromberg, Staff Writer
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