Over the past decade, people have gotten more serious about sun protection and for one very good reason — melanoma.
From 1982 to 2011 rates of melanoma in the U.S. doubled, and the American Cancer Society estimates that there will be more than 90,000 new cases in 2018.
So what is melanoma? While it isn’t the most common type of skin cancer, it is the most serious. Melanoma develops from cells called melanocytes, which make the pigment that gives skin its color. These cells can also form moles, which are noncancerous growths of the skin.
When melanocytes are damaged by exposure to UV light, mutations are triggered that turn the cell abnormal and cause it to multiply rapidly, forming cancerous tumors. Ultraviolet light exposure from the sun or tanning beds account for approximately 95 percent of melanoma cases.
In addition to sun damage, there are other factors that could increase your chance of developing melanoma. Having a lot of moles puts you at a higher risk, and a family history can also play a part. About 10% of people who have melanoma have a family member with it too.
Age is also a contributing factor. The average age for a melanoma diagnosis 63. Before age 50, the risk of developing melanoma is higher among women. After 50, men are at a greater risk.
One common misconception is that melanoma and other skin cancers can occur only in people with fair skin. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Research shows that Caucasians have a 1 in 38 lifetime risk of getting melanoma. But they aren’t alone. Approximately 1 in 172 Hispanics and 1 in 1,000 African-Americans will also get melanoma during their lifetime. In other words, anyone can be affected, and everyone needs to monitor moles that look abnormal.
“If you notice a mole that’s new or changing, that’s something to look out for,” said dermatologist Samer Jaber. “Another thing to look for is if a mole is different from other moles on the body; it’s called an ugly duckling.”
In addition to checking for these signs, Jaber also suggests that his patients remember the ABCDE guide to evaluate their moles.
A is for Asymmetry. If you cut a mole in half, it should be even on both sides.
B for Border. You don’t want moles that have jagged edges.
C for Color. You want moles that are even in color. You don’t want moles that are black, white, blue, or pink.
D for Diameter. You want moles that are smaller than a pencil eraser in size.
E for Evolving. If you have a mole that’s changing, itching, burning, or bleeding, you should have it evaluated by a board-certified dermatologist.
“If it’s caught early, a simple surgery is all you need to do,” said Jaber. "If it’s caught later, you may need an additional surgery, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy.”
The key to prevention is to check your moles early and often. Melanoma is typically found on the chest, back, legs, neck, and face, so moles in these areas should receive extra attention.
Limiting your exposure to the sun is also crucial. If you head outside, try to find a spot in the shade, wear a hat, throw on some sunglasses, and be sure to apply sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher. If you want a tan, consider using a spray-tan product. Sure, you may not have that sun-kissed look you desire, but the peace of mind you’ll gain will feel even better.