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Self-exams can be critical in spotting melanoma, other skin cancers

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Posted at 11:07 AM, May 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-20 15:49:11-04

Editor's note: This article is the part of a monthly series of stories focused on cancer issues. Denver7 is proud to partner with the American Cancer Society, Cancer Support Community, Colorado Cancer Coalition and Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HealthONE to bring you these stories, tips and resources.

With warm summer days around the corner, it’s important for everyone to protect themselves and stay safe in the sun. This year in Colorado, an estimated 1,920 people will be diagnosed with melanoma of the skin. Most skin cancers are caused by an influx of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, which come mainly from the sun, but also sources like indoor tanning beds and sun lamps.

The sooner your skin cancer is detected and treated, the greater your chance for recovery is. Oftentimes, skin cancer is very preventable if you take precautions and educate yourself on the dos and don’ts of sun exposure.

No one is safe from melanoma

People who have the highest risk of melanoma have many moles, irregular moles, or large moles.

Those with close blood relatives who have had melanoma and those who have had melanoma themselves are also at higher risk. This may be due to a family lifestyle of frequent sun exposure, having fair skin, inheriting a gene mutation, or a combination of these factors. Some dermatologists (skin doctors) suggest that people who have a first-degree relative (mother, father, sister, son, etc.) with a history of melanoma should get a skin exam done and talk to a health care provider about their risk of melanoma.

People who have fair skin that burns and freckles easily, as well as naturally red or blond hair, are also at higher risk for melanoma. People who had sunburns as a child or young adult or other types of cancer or pre-cancer spots on their skin at any age are at higher risk, too.

The chance of having melanoma goes up as a person gets older. Still, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in younger people.

Melanoma is less common in people with darker skin who rarely get sunburned, but no one is risk-free. When melanoma develops in people whose untanned skin color is brown, it most often starts on the palms, soles of the feet, and under the nails.

If you see anything unusual — a mole or growth that is growing, unusual, bleeding or not like the others — see a dermatologist.

Here are some sun safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Shade – Seek shade when possible. This is important particularly between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Clothing – Wear clothing like long sleeves and pants that cover and protect your skin.
  • Sunscreen – Choose a sunscreen that provides broad spectrum protection from UVA and UVB rays and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Be sure to read the label’s directions and apply generously.
  • Hats – Hats are another way to protect your skin from the sun. Look for a hat with a 2-to-3 inch brim.
  • Sunglasses – Protecting eyes and the skin around the eyes is important. Sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays are ideal.

It also important to avoid sun lamps and tanning beds. For additional details, visit the American Cancer Society website.

Perform a full-body self-exam each month to become familiar with your skin and to identify any changes that could signal skin cancer. Use a mirror to check your body and look for changes. If you find anything that concerns you, contact your doctor. Those changes could include:

  • A sore that bleeds or doesn’t heal after several weeks
  • An expanding, new or changing growth, bump or spot on the skin
  • A wart-like growth
  • A scaly or rough red patch that might bleed or crust
  • Changes to a mole’s color, size or shape
  • For details on skin self-exams and what to look for, check the ACS website
  • You can also download a body mole map from the American Academy of Dermatology to learn how to examine your skin and what to look for

Early Detection


Three common skin cancer types

  • Basal cell carcinoma is a slow-growing cancer in the layer just underneath the outer layer of the skin (epidermis) where the basal cells are located. Basal cell carcinoma seldom spreads to other parts of the body.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is more rare than basal cell cancer and lives in the epidermis. It spreads more often than basal cell carcinoma.
  • Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and occurs when melanocytes, the pigment cells in the lower part of the epidermis, become malignant, meaning that they start dividing uncontrollably. If it spreads to the lymph nodes, it may also reach other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs or brain. In such cases, the disease is called metastatic melanoma.

Other types of skin cancer include Kaposi sarcoma, skin or cutaneous lymphomas and Merkel cell carcinoma. Actinic keratosis is a precancerous skin lesion that can become a squamous cell cancer.

Treatment options

If you’ve been diagnosed with skin cancer, your doctor will most likely remove the tumor and some of the surrounding tissue via surgery (excision) or a special procedure called Mohs micrographic surgery. If you have melanoma, your doctor may perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) to help determine the stage.
Then, depending on the type of cancer, its stage, and other factors, your doctor may recommend additional treatment. This can include:

  • Chemotherapy, using drugs to kill or slow down the cancer cell growth
  • Immunotherapy, which helps the patient’s immune system fight the cancer
  • Clinical trial, depending on the type of skin cancer you have, you may be eligible for a type of treatment that is still being tested

If you have been diagnosed with skin cancer, follow your doctor’s recommendations for regular check-ups. This will help ensure that any new cases of skin cancer, or a recurrence of one that has been treated, is caught early enough.