Melanoma: What You Need to Know This Summer
May is Melanoma Awareness Month. This is the perfect time to address this skin cancer as—with the weather getting warmer and the start of summer right around the corner—more and more people will be spending time outdoors in the sun.
It's ultraviolet (UV) radiation—from sunlight and tanning beds/lamps—that is the Number One cause of skin cancer, including melanoma. Scientists suspect that UV radiation, which triggers the production of harmful free radicals in the body, damages the DNA of melanocytes—the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin and moles color.
It's in these DNA-damaged cells where melanoma begins.
There are different types of skin cancer, but melanoma is the most deadly of them all. It's 100% curable when caught early, but it can be deadly if not caught in time. This is why I always recommend that everyone have a full-body mole check by a board-certified dermatologist every year. (If you're at high risk of skin cancer, then I recommend a full-body mole check with a board-certified dermatologist every six months.)
What to Look For
It's important to know your skin and to observe any changes that occur—particularly when it comes to your moles, which is where melanomas occur most often.
Follow this ABCDE checklist when observing your moles:
A is for ASYMMETRY: check your moles for an asymmetrical shape, when the two sides don't match.
B is for BORDER: check your moles for an irregular or scalloped border
C is for COLOR: check your moles for uneven color and/or color changes (e.g. it's getting darker)
D is for DIAMETER: check moles that have grown in size to larger than a pencil eraser (about one-quarter of an inch)
E is for EVOLVING: check moles for any changes over time. This includes any of the above factors: asymmetry, borders, color, and size. A dermatologist can help track these changes, too, through annual checks.
Surprising Facts About Melanoma
Keep the ABCDEs of melanoma in mind when considering these surprising facts about melanoma:
√ Melanoma doesn't always appear after a lifetime of being out in the sun. It's appearing more and more in people under the age of 40—particularly women.
√ Melanoma doesn't just show up on your face, arms, legs, or chest. It can develop in less obvious places like in the eye, in your mouth, under a toenail or fingernail (which shows up as a black mark that doesn't go away), on the scalp, on (or behind) your ear, on your palms, and even on your genitals. This is why having an annual full-body check from a board-certified dermatologist whom you trust and feel comfortable with is so important. Your dermatologist can check the places where you might not think to look—and can spot the signs of melanoma.
√ Melanoma isn't always brown or black. Most people think of melanoma as black or brown moles or skin, but melanoma can also be tan, pink, and even white.
√ Melanoma can occur in people of every skin color, including black and Asian skin tones. Most people think that colored skin isn't susceptible to skin cancer, but this simply is not true. In fact, the Reggae singer Bob Marley died of melanoma that developed under his toenail.
Vigilance about changes in your skin is key. You know your skin better than anyone else; slather up with sunscreen (and reapply often) all year long (not just during the summer months), wear protective clothing (including a hat) and sunglasses, stay out of the sun whenever you can, avoid tanning beds altogether, and check your skin regularly so you know your moles and what looks normal—and what looks suspicious.
Stay safe in the sun this summer,