As we peel off winter clothing and head for the beach, it’s a perfect time to learn about the benefits of screening exams for melanoma and other skin cancers. Preventing these cancers with sun safety awareness is important – but so is detecting skin lesions in their earliest, most treatable stage.
Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is now the fifth most common cancer in men and the seventh most common in women in the United States. About 42,670 melanoma cases in men and 31,200 in women are projected for 2015, with 9,940 deaths. It’s also the only preventable cancer with a rising incidence rate in this country.
Most people who have thin, early melanoma tumors can be cured or have long survival, but after the cancer has spread inside the body, survival drops drastically. Melanoma most commonly arises in the skin and with awareness and examination can be directly spotted in its very early stages – a huge advantage over most other cancers.
No nationwide policy on melanoma screening exists at present, but the evidence for its effectiveness is growing. A 2012 study reported that population-wide screening over 10 years in a region of Germany reduced melanoma deaths by 40 percent.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) encourages individuals to have skin exams at intervals recommended by a dermatologist. The frequency of screenings should be based on risk factors. Risk factors include having fair skin, a family history of skin cancer, a personal history of excessive sun exposure, or tanning bed usage. Other risk factors are a tendency to freckle or having many moles that are atypical. Another high-risk group is Caucasian men over the age of 65, who frequently have advanced melanomas at the time of diagnosis.
“The main message is, the more awareness the better,” says Jennifer Lin, MD, dermatology director in the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center’s (DF/BWCC) Melanoma Treatment Center. “This includes yourself or anyone who sees your skin; there is a movement to train hair dressers and masseurs to check the skin.”
Primary care physicians don’t necessarily do skin exams as part of a routine physical, so Lin suggests that individuals who are concerned about melanoma or other skin cancers ask their primary care physicians to perform an examination, or be referred to a dermatologist.
“Routine self-exams, especially while referring to a photo of what melanoma should look like, lead to thinner tumors and better prognosis,” says Lin. The acronym ABCDE is a reference for the warning signs of melanoma: A is for Asymmetry; B is for Border irregularity; C is for varying Color, D is for Diameter, typically greater than the size of a pencil eraser; E is for Evolving or changing in size, shape or color over time.
“Change is one of the most important things we want to hear about,” emphasizes Lin. “Get to know your skin. Check your skin routinely on a monthly basis – it is a cheap and effective safety measure you can do for yourself and your family.”
Learn more from this guide to self-screening from the Melanoma Research Foundation.
Throughout the summer, the Dana-Farber Blum Family Resource Center Van will bring its traveling Sun Safety Education and Skin Cancer Screening Program to various locations throughout Massachusetts. For more information about these screenings, email Sabrina_Gonzalez@dfci.harvard.edu.
In addition, the American Academy of Dermatology sponsors a nationwide skin cancer screening program, SPOTme(TM) that offers free screening at community events in collaboration with the National Football League and other organizations. In May, which is Melanoma Skin Cancer Awareness Month, AAD dermatologists are offering free screenings at locations in Massachusetts and other states listed on this page.