Meet our doctors: Surgical oncologist Hans Schoellhammer on skin cancer
May 16, 2015 | by Valerie Zapanta
In the U.S., there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate and lung, according to the American Cancer Society. Each year, 5 million people are treated for skin cancer. Here, Hans Schoellhammer, M.D., assistant clinical professor at City of Hope | Antelope Valley community practice site, shares his tips on skin cancer prevention, plus information on new skin cancer treatments.
What are the latest treatments, advancements and research involving skin cancer, specifically melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer?
This is a very exciting time in melanoma research and treatment. Surgery to remove the primary melanoma and to stage nearby lymph nodes with a sentinel lymph node biopsy is still the main treatment, but the Food and Drug Administration has recently approved a number of new medications. These drugs help treat melanoma that is too locally advanced to be removed by surgery or that has metastasized to other parts of the body.
Some of these new medications, such as ipilimumab or nivolumab, allow our own body’s immune system cells to be more active, helping them attack and destroy melanoma cells. Other medications, such as vemurafenib, are targeted therapies that affect melanoma cells that have specific mutations, again leading to melanoma regression and increased overall survival.
What are some of the known risk factors for melanoma? Is it linked to our genes?
Risk factors for the development of skin cancer include having a family history of skin cancer or melanoma, having multiple atypical moles and prolonged sun exposure. People with fair skin who sunburn easily or who develop sunburns instead of tans are at greater risk for developing skin cancer.
As we age, the incidence of skin cancer increases, and in addition, males have an increased chance of developing skin cancer over their lifetime compared with females. The use of tanning beds increases the risk of melanoma, and in fact, since 2009, the World Health Organization has categorized tanning beds as carcinogens.
Patients who have had one melanoma are at increased risk of developing another melanoma, compared with the general population. Very rarely, certain genetic syndromes increase the risk for melanoma, such as atypical mole and melanoma syndrome, but these make up a small percentage of patients.
What are common misunderstandings, myths or questions about skin cancer that you want to set straight?
One common myth about skin cancer is that only people with fair or pale skin can be affected. Although it is true that people with fair skin, who sunburn easily, are at increased risk, skin cancer can occur in any ethnic group. For example, Bob Marley passed away at only the age of 36 from metastatic melanoma. Melanoma can also occur on parts of the body that don’t typically receive significant sun exposure or that haven’t been sunburned.
The ABCDEs of skin cancer detection are a handy memory device to help physicians and patients to remember the early signs of skin cancer:
- A – Asymmetry of a mole. or nevus
- B – Border irregularity
- C – Color variation of a mole (even odd-appearing colors like red or blue)
- D – Diameter greater than 6 mm (about the diameter of a pencil eraser)
- E – Enlarging/elevating/evolving of skin lesions
I chose to go into surgery, and then further specialize in surgical oncology, because I was drawn to the idea that by working with one’s hands, one can treat patients and have an immediate and dramatic impact on their health. For many solid-organ cancers, the patient’s best chance at survival lies with a complete oncologic removal of the malignancy, and for those patients whose cancers are unresectable, often the most effective palliation is by surgical means.
Additionally, I specialized in surgical oncology to become involved in, and conduct, research that could have a direct impact on the care of patients and ultimately their outcomes and quality of life. I feel privileged and honored to be at City of Hope to help improve the quality of a cancer patient’s life, to give the patient more time to be with their family, and to give them hope and relief that their disease has been cured.
Learn more about the services and specialties offered at City of Hope | Antelope Valley.
Learn more about becoming a patient at City of Hope | Antelope Valley by visiting our website or by calling (951) 898-2828. You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.