Rates of occurrence of cervical, colorectal, lung and ovarian cancer among women have been dropping in recent years, as have their corresponding mortality rates. Breast cancer incidence has leveled out for most demographics, and the mortality rates attached to it have dropped along with the others.
But there is still one outlier in this optimistic picture for cancer sufferers: melanoma of the skin.
While melanoma is not one of the top three cancers affecting women, its incidence rate has actually increased over the last few decades. Skin cancer is the most prevalent of all cancers in the United States, more common than all other cancer diagnoses combined, and while melanoma represents just a small portion of those cases (about 1 percent) it is by far the most deadly cancer of the skin.
With summer days fast approaching, here are 10 facts all women should know about melanoma of the skin:
White women are 20 times more likely to develop melanoma than any other ethnic group; one in 40 is likely to be affected. Also, while both groups are comparatively low, Hispanic women have a slightly higher rate of incidence than African-American women. Incidence rates for women of African-American, American Indian and Asian/Pacific Islander descent have remained level in recent years.
Melanoma risk increases with age, though many young people also are at risk. While it’s more likely to occur in older adults, melanoma is one of the most common cancers affecting those under 30 years old, especially younger women.
The most telling sign of melanoma is any spot on the skin that is changing, whether in color, shape or size. Any new spot, or a spot that looks different from others on the skin, can be a sign, as well. Ragged borders, asymmetry, swelling, itchiness, pigment that bleeds to surrounding skin, and a mix of colors in the same spot are all red flags.
Regular annual check-ups with a dermatologist — especially if skin cancer runs in the family — can be key in discovering a problem early enough to cure it.
A person with many moles is more likely to develop melanoma. There are also larger, atypically shaped or colored moles (dysplastic nevi) that may signal melanoma. These can appear anywhere on the skin. A person with many of these atypical moles is more likely to see melanoma develop.
Periodic self-exams using full-length and handheld mirrors (or even a helpful friend or family member) are key to early detection. Keeping track of any moles, blemishes, freckles or other spots on your body can help alert you to changes. Sharing this information with a dermatologist can help him or her focus on potential trouble spots during an exam.
For women, melanomas appear most often on the legs, and they usually show as black or brown, though they can also be tan, pink or white. The face and neck are also common locations because they are so frequently exposed to sunlight.
Exposure to ultraviolet rays — from open sunlight, tanning beds and sun lamps — is the biggest driver of melanoma and skin cancer. These UV rays damage the DNA of the genes in the skin cells, affecting their growth. It’s important to remember that sun exposure doesn’t just happen at the beach. It’s present daily, by simply walking around outside.
So seeking shade, throwing on a long-sleeved shirt, wearing sunscreen, donning a hat and sporting UV-protective sunglasses (while also avoiding tanning salons) will go a long way toward minimizing melanoma risk.
Other risk factors for melanoma include having green or blue eyes, blond or red hair, and fair or freckled skin. The appearance of melanoma in a close relative increases the possibility; about 10 percent of those with melanoma have some history of it in the family. And having had melanoma makes it more likely that someone will get it again. A weakened immune system is also a risk factor, as it is for all cancers.
Unlike some cancers, melanoma is almost always curable if caught early enough. If it has advanced, melanoma becomes more dangerous because it is much more likely to spread than other skin cancers, such as basal and squamous cell.
Depending on the stage and severity of the melanoma, everything from surgery and immunotherapy to chemotherapy and radiation therapy — or a combination of several — can be used to treat it. Weighing the pros and cons of each treatment option with a medical specialists is essential to forming the best treatment plan and the most positive outcome.