Whether it’s a sunny summer day or a gloomy day in winter, City of Hope cancer experts say it’s never the wrong season to take a closer look at your skin — and take some steps to protect its health.
After all, nearly half of all Americans will have some form of skin cancer by the time they’re 65.
Luckily, most cases of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, a slow-growing type that’s easily treated at a doctor’s office. But physicians are increasingly seeing cases of melanoma, the most deadly cancer found on the skin. Melanoma now stands as the fifth most common cancer in men and the seventh among women, said Carlos Garberoglio, M.D., clinical director of general oncologic surgery at City of Hope.
“Melanoma is a significant issue and needs to be addressed,” said Garberoglio, who performs melanoma surgeries. “We’re going to be seeing more and more of these patients and early detection is still the most important factor in prognosis.”
It’s important to understand the roots of risk, Garberoglio said. These are a few risk factors:
Red or blond hair
History of three or more blistering sunburns before age 20
Marked freckling on the upper back
Family members with melanoma
Yet people with no known risk factors can develop melanoma, including those with dark skin. Latinos in California have increasingly been diagnosed with the disease, and African-Americans, too, may overlook their developing tumors because they’re more likely to appear on parts of the body not exposed to the sun. Melanoma in these areas, including the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, offers a poorer prognosis.
Because early detection means a better chance at cure, doctors suggest watching regularly for anything unusual on the skin. These are among the many ways melanoma can appear:
Changes to an existing mole (the most common type of melanoma)
Crusted, bleeding or ulcerated lesions
Flat, widening dark patches
A darkened area under a nail
So how do you find them? Perform a regular, whole-body check using a mirror and look for spots with one or more “ABCD” characteristics:
“A” for asymmetry — one half is unlike the other half
“B” for border — irregular or ragged edges
“C” for color variation
“D” for diameter wider than 6 millimeters
Some physicians add an “E” to the list for good measure: “E” for evolution, because suspicious evolution in the appearance of a mole or spot on the skin calls for closer observation by a dermatologist.
Sunscreen, hats and clothes can reduce the skin’s sunlight exposure. Avoiding tanning, whether at a salon or outdoors, is crucial. And since about 80 percent of lifetime sun exposure happens before 18 — and babies and children have especially vulnerable skin — protection is particularly important for kids.
“Use sunscreen,” Garberoglio said, “and most importantly, don’t forget to reapply often.”
City of Hope offers more information about skin cancer online. Other resources on melanoma and sun safety include the American Academy of Dermatology.