Although skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, melanoma accounts for less than 2 percent of all skin cancer cases. The disease, which will be diagnosed in around 76,000 Americans in 2014, is the most aggressive form of skin cancer.
“It is important that people protect themselves from the sun and make themselves aware of the signs and symptoms of melanoma to greatly reduce their risk of developing this preventable, but dangerous, disease,” says Stephen Hodi, MD, leader of the Melanoma Program at Dana-Farber.
With May marking Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, here are five key facts about melanoma:
1. What are the risk factors for melanoma?
People who are exposed to natural or artificial sunlight (such as tanning beds) over long periods of time are at higher risk of developing melanoma.
Other risk factors include:
- Fair skin
- A history of many blistering sunburns, especially as a child or teenager
- Several large or many small moles
- A family history of unusual moles
- A family or personal history of melanoma
2. What are the symptoms of melanoma?
It is important to look for changes to skin or moles, as this can be a sign of melanoma. Experts recommend using the “ABCDE rule” to help determine when a physician should see a mole or skin change:
- A for asymmetry: One half is differently shaped than the other
- B for border irregularity: Jagged or blurred edges
- C for color: The pigmentation is not consistent
- D for diameter: Moles greater than six millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser)
- E for evolving: A mole changing in size, shape or color
Other symptoms of melanoma can include satellite moles (new moles that grow near an existing mole), or areas that ooze, bleed, or are ulcerated.
3. How is melanoma diagnosed?
A physician will conduct a skin exam to check for any moles or unusual areas of skin. If there is an abnormal patch, the mole or lesion will be removed and a pathologist will check the tissue for cancer cells.
4. How is melanoma treated?
Immunotherapy, also known as biologic therapy, uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy treatments help boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer.
Patients with melanoma may also want to consider treatment on a clinical trial. Dana-Farber currently has several clinical trials open for melanoma patients, and the National Cancer Institute maintains a national list of clinical trials at clinicaltrials.gov.
5. What are the best ways to prevent melanoma?
Remember to wear sunscreen whenever the skin is exposed to the sun for long periods of time. This means wearing sunscreen year round, and not just during beach trips.
Other tips for prevention include:
- Wear sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Apply it often and don’t forget the neck, ears and hands. Also, make sure the sunscreen has not expired.
- Apply lip balm with sunscreen and use makeup with SPF 15 or higher.
- Use eye protection, especially for skiing. Look for wrap-around sunglasses and ski goggles with UV protection.
- Wear a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
- Avoid excessive exposure to the sun, especially during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is strongest.