May is melanoma awareness month, which means it’s time for a little education about facts, stats, causes and cures.
First, the bad news. Melanoma, a form of skin cancer, accounts for the vast majority of skin cancer deaths in the U.S. The good news? It’s also one of the least common— and if detected early, and it’s localized, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent.
Which brings up the first fact: melanoma is most often first discovered by the patient.
Why is that? There are many possible reasons but the most obvious is that a patient knows the shapes, size, tones and textures of any mark or mole on their skin. So, self-screening isn’t too challenging.
For a good guide to self-screening, try following the recommendation of the Melanoma Research Foundation, which they call the ABCDE guide. Their website says to “Look for these signs: Asymmetry, irregular Borders, more than one or uneven distribution of Color, or a large (greater than 6mm) Diameter. Finally, pay attention to the Evolution of your moles – know what's normal for your skin and check it regularly for changes.”
Second fact: most melanomas are thought to be caused by or linked to exposure to UV (ultraviolet) light which makes tanning beds a very bad plan.
Fifteen minutes in a tanning bed is equivalent to a full day at the beach. Contrary to popular opinion a tanning-bed-tan doesn’t help prevent sunburn.
What does prevent sunburn, and exposure to harmful UV rays? Sunscreen! Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen prior to outdoor activities, or lounging by the pool or at the beach, is one of the best ways to prevent both run-of-the-mill skin damage and skin cancer. Big hats and protective clothing are a good idea too, even for young women who may be fashion aware, because of fact number three.
Melanoma is more deadly in young women than breast cancer.
Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 25 to 30 and the second leading cause of cancer death in women ages 30 to 35.
Many young women are already considering a visit to a dermatology clinic for cosmetic reasons, maybe to try out a chemical peel or to deal with stubborn acne. As long as making an appointment is on their radar, they should talk to the doctor about melanoma and skin cancer screening.
Remember, the risk is much higher for people who have a first-degree family member (parent, sibling, child) who has been diagnosed with melanoma. So people who are at high risk need to run, not walk, to a dermatologist and establish a baseline for their skin health!
Finally and unfortunately is the fact that, at the global level, work on melanoma and skin cancer is the most underfunded by federal and private agencies.
This, despite the rise in skin cancer diagnosis—the incidence has more than doubled over the last three decades.
But there are ways to fight back. First, naturally, by being aware, doing self-screening, and seeing a dermatologist at the first sign of an abnormal looking blemish or mark. The second is to dive into advocacy work.
Groups like the Melanoma Research Foundation, The American Cancer Society Action Network and the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention all have suggestions about ways to get involved and advocate for funding, research and educational outreach.
Want to start now? Put Friday, May 26, “National Don’t Fry Day” down on the calendar and use that opportunity to promote sun safety awareness—or maybe to schedule that dermatology appointment.