What you should know about melanoma

The American Cancer Society states that every year more than 2 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer — overall, the most common form of cancer. And of these people more than 70,000 will be diagnosed with melanoma — the most serious type of skin cancer.

The other two types of skin cancer are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. These other two types are rarely life threatening and they rarely spread to other parts of the body. Although melanoma is rarer, it is also more deadly. When it is detected early, melanoma can be cured but it must be detected early before it has spread; therefore, it is important to notice changes to the skin and report them to your health care provider immediately.

Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the melanocytes which are the cells that produce the protective skin coloring called melanin. Melanin helps protect the deeper layers of skin from the sun’s radiation and that is why when you expose your skin to the sun it darkens as the amount of melanin increases.

Melanoma cells usually still produce melanin and give the cancer shades of tan, brown, blue or black. Melanoma can spread throughout the body if not found and treated early in its development and if the cancer reaches vital organs it is very difficult to treat and much less likely to be cured.

Melanoma can begin on or near a mole or it may erupt on a clear section of skin. It is vital to check your skin for changes to moles or discoloration of skin and have a partner or friend take a look at your back periodically and other parts of your body that are difficult to scan like the back of your legs or the back of your scalp.

Melanoma is caused from exposure to UV radiation which may come from the sun or from tanning booths and most times it develops from earlier exposures which have caused the damage. In some families, there is a genetic predisposition to melanoma, and no one is entirely free from the risk.

People who have the highest risk for melanoma are those with many moles, irregularly shaped moles or large moles. Having other family members who have had melanoma also increases the risk although this can be caused either by the inherited gene that increases risk or by having a family lifestyle that increases the risk, or inheriting very fair skin that burns or freckles easily, or a combination of these factors.

Having many sunburns or severe sunburns as a child or having other skin cancers raises the risk for melanoma as well. Although people with darker skin have more protection against melanoma because they rarely get sunburned, no one is completely risk free. In people with darker complexions melanoma usually starts on the soles or the feet, the palms of the hands or under the nails.

The risk also increases in geographical areas that have year-round sunshine and, as with most cancers, the risk of developing melanoma increases with advancing age.

The most important warning sign of melanoma is a new or changing skin growth. This might be a change in size, shape or color of a spot on the skin or a completely new growth. If a spot or mole on the skin is asymmetrical or if the border of the mole or spot is uneven or notched rather than round or if there are several colors in the lesion, or if it is bigger than a quarter inch, it bears investigation by your health care provider.

Other signs that are significant are if a skin sore does not heal, or the pigment from the lesion spreads to the nearby skin, or there is a change in sensation such as itchiness, tenderness or pain, or if the surface of the spot starts oozing or bleeding, or the mole simply looks different than others on the body.

The best treatment for a melanoma is surgery. If a lesion is suspected by your doctor to be melanoma, it will be biopsied to confirm the diagnosis. If it is diagnosed as melanoma it will be surgically excised, and the sooner the better, before it has a chance to spread.

You can reduce your chances of developing melanoma by staying out of the intense mid-day sun, wearing sun protective clothes, hats, long sleeves, sunglasses and sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15. Sunscreen should be replaced every two hours while out in the sun, and indoor sunbeds and tanning lamps should be avoided altogether. It is recommended to do a thorough skin check once a month, and use a mirror to get at the hard to see spots if you don’t have someone to help. If you find something suspicious, go to the doctor and report it.

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Jane Riley is a certified personal trainer, certified nutritional adviser and certified behavior change specialist. She can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com and (808) 212-8119.

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