The incidence of melanoma, the most serious and dangerous of all skin cancers, has constantly risen over the last few decades. One in 50 people will likely develop this serious form of skin cancer during their lifetime. However, there is good news: if detected in the earliest stages, a cure is possible.
The fairer the skin, along with unprotected sunlight exposure, definitely increases one's risk. Also, given the American lifestyle of outdoor activity, coupled with global warming and a probable decrease in the ozone layer, add to this increasing occurrence of this devastating form of cancer.
As with most forms of cancer, prevention and early detection can be lifesaving. Something as simple as knowing the first five letters of the alphabet can help know the warning signs of melanoma. Those signs are:
A. Asymmetry: If you visually bisect a mole in half one side looks different than the other side.
B. Border: If the border seems irregular with indentations appearing like the outline of an island on a map instead of round or oval.
C. Color: If there are variations within the mole of red, white or blue (“the American flag" sign) or if the mole appears pitch black.
D. Diamete r: If the mole is greater than 6 millimeters (1/4 inch).
E. Evolving: If the mole looks different than it did before.
It is also important to know the possible risk factors of melanoma, including: a family history of melanoma, a severe sunburn prior to the age of 14, or skin that always burns and never tans or tanning preceded by burning. Even if you do not have any of these risk factors, the best thing you can do for your skin is to examine skin regularly and protect it from ultraviolet light (UVL), the short range UVB, long range UVA light (found in natural sunlight activity) and the dangerous long range UVA light (found in tanning beds). In the journal Lancet Oncology, an international panel of cancer experts recently issued a warning that tanning bed light exposure is as dangerous as arsenic and mustard gas exposure.
Sunscreens provide excellent protection from these dangerous wavelengths of light. When purchasing sunscreen, find one that has dual protection from both forms of UVL, and the general population should be using a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater. The SPF number on the bottle tells you how much protection you have from the short range UVL (UVB).
To protect against longer and equally dangerous UVA and UVL, look for the following ingredients: ecamsule, helioplex, anhelios, and oxybenzone. When using sunscreen apply generously and repeat applications, especially with water exposure (despite water-resistant labeling). Also, the United States Food and Drug Administration recently approved a star rating system (one to four stars) to aid the public in determining the level of protection from the longer UVA light. These stars should appear soon on the sunscreen containers.
A yearly skin check with a dermatologist for most people in Kentucky is adequate screening. If you follow these simple and affective preventive measures you can enjoy your beach vacations, outdoor sporting events and mowing your lawn while protecting yourself and your family at the same time.
Dr. Stuart Tobin is associate clinical professor of Dermatology in the department of Surgery at UK HealthCare.