There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Melanoma is the least common and most aggressive form. Of the over 3 million skin cancer diagnoses reported by the American Academy of Dermatology, approximately 200,000 cases will be diagnosed as melanoma. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin, but is more commonly found on the legs of women and the chest or back of men. Research indicates that UV light from the sun and indoor tanning causes melanoma*. (*Source: American Academy of Dermatology) Risk factors that increase the odds of developing melanoma include excessive sun exposure, a weakened immune system, fair skin, personal skin cancer history, and a family history of skin cancer.
Early detection of melanoma is crucial. Patients diagnosed with early-stage melanoma have an excellent prognosis in comparison to those diagnosed with metastatic disease and have a 5-year prognosis of 25%. One useful tool to help you spot melanoma early on is the ABCDE‘s of melanoma. The letters serve as a guide to help you recognize warning signs.
- Asymmetrical – irregular shape with no matching parts
- Border – Jagged or irregular edges
- Color – uneven coloring or multiple colors
- Diameter – larger than the size of a pencil eraser tip
- Evolving – change in size, shape, or color over time
Other signs of melanoma include sores that do not heal, lumps, and any other changes in the skin. Board certified TPMG Dermatologist Valerie Harvey, MD, MPH says “Routine self-skin examinations are important and easy to perform. Areas that are hard to examine, include the scalp, back, and the soles of the feet. Patients can enlist the help of a friend or spouse to scan the back half of their bodies; hairdressers are often the first to discover the presence of abnormal scalp lesions.”
If you receive a diagnosis of melanoma, determining the stage of cancer is the next step. The stages of melanoma are dependent upon several factors; size or thickness of the tumor, whether it has spread (metastasized), and other characteristics such as growth rate. Knowing the stage of cancer is crucial to determine how best to treat the disease.
For people diagnosed with early-stage melanoma, surgical excision with appropriate margins is recommended. For individuals who have a more advanced stage of melanoma, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy may be advised.
Sun safety is an important part of melanoma prevention. This can be done by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 or greater, staying in the shade when outside for long periods, avoiding UV tanning beds, and wearing protective clothing such as broad-brimmed hats and UV protective sunglasses. Make sure to reapply sunscreen every two hours when outdoors, or after swimming or rigorous activity. Also, do not forget your feet when wearing sandals and the tops of hands, as these are common places we miss which are still exposed to the sun.
If you have areas of concern on your skin, it is best to consult with a dermatologist who can determine if the lesion is serious.
About Dr. Valerie M. Harvey, MD, MPH
Dr. Harvey is located in Newport News at the TPMG Hampton Roads Center for Dermatology.