Q&A: Focus on skin melanoma

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ana C.JPGMelanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. And, although many cases of skin melanoma can be prevented, it's becoming increasingly common in the United States, especially among young adults.

MD Anderson is working hard to combat melanoma through our Moon Shot Program.

Below, Ana M. Ciurea, M.D., assistant professor in MD Anderson's Department of Dermatology and associate medical director of MD Anderson's Cancer Prevention Center, answers questions about skin melanoma.

What is melanoma of the skin?

Melanoma of the skin originates in the cells that make melanin, the substance that gives the skin its color. Sometimes these cells change, often due to damage from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or artificial light. Over time, this can result in melanoma.

How common is skin melanoma in the United States?
Since 1950, melanoma cases have increased by 600% in the United States, and death rates have risen by 150%. In recent years, there's been an especially disturbing trend of increased incidence in young adults -- especially women ages 20-30.The American Cancer Society projects that 76,690 new cases will be diagnosed in 2013, and about 9,480 people will die of melanoma this year.

Who's more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma?
You're more likely to develop melanoma if you:
  • have fair skin, blue or green eyes, or red or blond hair
  • live in sunny climates or high altitudes
  • spend a lot of time in strong sunlight
  • have had one or more blistering sunburns as a child, and/or 
  • use tanning beds
Other risk factors include having close relatives with a history of melanoma; certain types of moles, or many birthmarks; a weakened immune system or personal history of melanoma.

What are some common melanoma symptoms?
Melanoma usually appears on the skin as a new or existing mole that changes size (enlarges), color or shape, or as an irregular brown, black and/or red spot or growth. You can evaluate your moles using the ABCDEFs of melanoma: asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, diameter, evolution and feel.

What should I do if I see something unusual on my skin?
See a dermatologist as soon as possible. Dermatologists at MD Anderson's Cancer Prevention Center perform skin cancer screening examinations every day. You can schedule an appointment by calling 1-877-632-6789.

What will the dermatologist do if she or he thinks something on my skin looks suspicious?
A biopsy will be taken and sent to the lab for testing to reach the correct diagnosis. It could be something harmless, or it could turn out to be one of the two most common types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Slow-growing basal cell carcinoma comprises 90% of skin cancers and usually does not metastasize, while squamous cell carcinoma can spread to the lymph nodes or to distant sites. Melanoma is less common, but far more dangerous.

How can I reduce my risk of getting melanoma?

Research shows that the best way to do that is to protect yourself from the sun's harmful UV rays and avoid tanning beds, which emit the same UV rays as the sun.

Whenever you're outdoors, wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30, and re-apply every two hours if sweating or swimming.  

If you're going to be outside, put on a wide-brimmed hat, wear dark, long-sleeved shirts and sunglasses, seek shade, and avoid peak sun hours (10 a.m. - 4 p.m.). Monitor your skin once a month, and get full-body checkups every year from a skilled dermatologist.


Learn the facts about melanoma (podcast) with Dr. Ciurea

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