As Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, May is the perfect time to encourage people to examine their skin and seek medical assistance if they recognize signs of a melanoma. Early detection and prompt treatment is associated with a much higher survival rate for skin cancer diagnoses.

Melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer in which cells within cutaneous moles become malignant, can spread rapidly to other areas of the body if left untreated. Melanomas also develop—although less commonly—in other areas of the body such as the eye, underneath the nails, and inside the nose and mouth.

Melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer in which cells within cutaneous moles become malignant, can spread rapidly to other areas of the body if left untreated. Melanomas also develop—although less commonly—in other areas of the body such as the eye, underneath the nails, and inside the nose and mouth.

Everyone is at risk for malignant melanoma. However, some behaviors and traits may lead to an elevated risk for melanoma.

  • Exposure to ultraviolet light, both natural and artificial, increases the risk for developing melanoma.
  • Risk is also higher in people with a light or fair complexion. The American Cancer Society reports that melanoma is more than 20 times more common in Caucasians than in African Americans. Overall, the lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 2.5% (1 in 40) for Caucasians, 0.1% (1 in 1,000) for African Americans, and 0.5% (1 in 200) for Hispanics.
  • The risk of melanoma increases as people age. The average age of people when melanoma is diagnosed is 63, according to the American Cancer Society. However, melanoma can also occur in young adults, so all individuals are at risk. This is especially true in people with a family history of melanoma, which may indicate familial malignant melanoma.
  • Having a weakened immune system increases a person’s risk.
  • Before age 50, women have a higher risk of developing melanoma.  Overall, the American Cancer Society reports that the incidence is higher in men with an estimated 52,170 cases in 2017 (6% of all male cancers) and 34,940 new cases in women (4% of all female cancer).

Spreading Awareness for Melanoma Warning Signs

To help make the melanoma warning signs memorable, identifying a potentially malignant mole can be abbreviated to the mnemonic device: ABCDE. Encourage your patients to know what to look for and seek medical attention if the following are true:

  • Asymmetry: Is the mole asymmetrical?
  • Border: Does the border or edge of the mole look uneven?
  • Color: Is the mole one uniform color? If there are several colors or shades of a color within a mole this could be a warning sign.
  • Diameter: How big is the mole? Melanomas often have a diameter larger than 6 mm (the size of a pencil eraser).
  • Evolving: Has the mole changed in shape, size, or color? Are there any other changes such as bleeding, itching, or drainage coming from the mole?

Melanoma treatments are generally more successful when they’re detected early.  According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year relative survival rate for localized melanoma is 98%. Unfortunately, advanced melanoma doesn’t typically respond nearly as well to chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or medication. While new immunotherapies are showing more and more promise for advanced melanoma cases, early detection is still the best way to ensure higher survival rates for patients.  

The theme of the 2017 American Academy of Dermatology campaign, which includes public service videos, is “Check Your Partner – Check Yourself.” The campaign encourages women to check both their partners and themselves for signs of skin cancer.

Many dermatologists offer free melanoma screening throughout the month of May.  A searchable list of free SPOTme® Skin Cancer Screening is available. More information is available at American Academy of Dermatology.

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