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Posted Apr 10 2010 12:00am

          With spring already here and the summer months soon approaching, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the warning signs of melanoma.  Melanoma is a form of skin cancer; it is the most serious type, but it is also the least common.  All skin cancers start in the cells of the upper layer of your skin, called the epidermis.  There are three different types of skin cancer:  squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma.  Melanoma begins in skin cells called melanocytes.  Melanocytes are the cells that make melanin, which gives skin its color.  Melanin also protects the deeper layers of the skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.  When people spend time in the sunlight, the melanocytes make more melanin and cause the skin to tan.  This also happens when skin is exposed to other forms of ultraviolet light (such as tanning booths).  If the skin receives too much ultraviolet light, the melanocytes may begin to grow abnormally and become cancerous.  This condition is called melanoma.  Also referred to as “malignant melanoma,” it is the skin cancer most likely to spread to lymph nodes and internal organs.  Today, melanoma accounts for 77% of all deaths from skin cancer.

          Melanoma occurs more often in people with fair skin that sunburns or freckles easily.  Usually, these people also have red or blond hair and blue eyes.  Fair-skinned people have less melanin in their skin, which means they have less protection against the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays.  People who have had one or more severe, blistering sunburns as a child or teenager also have an increased risk for melanoma.  Because of this, doctors advise parents to protect their children’s skin from the sun.  Sunburns in adulthood are also a risk factor for melanoma.  Certain patterns of moles also commonly go along with an increased risk of melanoma, such as having unusual moles called dysplastic nevi.  In addition, the risk of melanoma is also greater for people with a large number of ordinary moles.  Likewise, people who have already had melanoma have an increased risk of getting melanoma at another place on their body.  Some have an increased risk due to a weakened immune system (such as people with HIV/AIDS or people who are taking medicines that suppress the immune system).  Melanoma sometimes runs in families, so people with two or more close relatives who have had melanoma also have an increased risk.

          Dermatologists believe that the number of deaths from melanoma could be significantly reduced if more people were able to recognize melanoma in its earliest stages.  The first sign of melanoma is often a change in the size, shape or color of a mole.  But melanoma can also appear on the body as a new mole.  In men, melanoma most often shows up on the upper body, between the shoulders and hips or on the head and neck.  In women, melanoma often develops on the lower legs.  In dark-skinned people, melanoma often appears under the fingernails or toenails, on the palms of the hands or on the soles of the feet.  Although these are the most common places on the body for melanomas to appear, they can appear anywhere on the skin.  That’s why it is important to always examine your skin to check for new moles or changes in moles.

          Because melanoma can appear anywhere on the skin, it is important that you get to know the pattern of moles, spots, freckles and other marks on your skin so you can notice any changes.  The best way to find changes in these moles and markings is by performing regular skin self-examinations.  The following checks are easy to do and may find this deadly cancer before it gets deeper into the skin and spreads to lymph nodes and other parts of your body:

  • A growth that increases in size and looks pearly, translucent, tan, brown, black, red, pink or multicolored
  • A mole that changes in color or in texture, takes on an uneven shape, gets larger or is bigger than a pencil eraser
  • A spot or growth that continues to itch, hurt, crust, scab, fade or bleed
  • An open sore that lasts for more than 4 weeks, or heals and then reopens
  • A scaly or crusty bump that is dry, rough and pointed (sticks out like a horn) and may sometimes cause a pricking or tender feeling in the skin

Thinking of “ABCD” can help you remember what to watch for: Asymmetry – the shape of one half does not match the other, Border – the edges are ragged, blurred or irregular, Color - the color in uneven and may include shades of black, brown and tan and Diameter – there is a change in size, usually an increase.  If you happen to notice any of these changes, please see your doctor or dermatologist immediately!

          The chance of getting melanoma increases as you get older, but people of any age can get melanoma.  In fact, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults.  Each year, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. learn that they have melanoma.  If melanoma is found and treated in its early stages, the chances of recovery are very good.  If it is not found early, melanoma can grow deeper into the skin and spread to other parts of the body.  This spread is called metastasis.  Once melanoma has spread to other parts of the body beyond the skin, it is difficult to treat.  With early detection and treatment, the cure rate for melanoma is about 95%.  Remember that the main cause of melanoma is too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching the skin.  Be sure to observe your skin for any changes to familiarize yourself with the warning signs of melanoma.

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