Melanoma – the warning signs!

Melanoma, the deadly skin cancer, is on the rise. In the United States in 2008, there were estimated 62,480 new cases. In the same year, 8,420 people were predicted to die from this cancer. Melanoma is the #6 most common malignancy in men and #7 most common in women. The ethnicity of melanoma is quite interesting, with 98.2% of cases in white patients, 1.1% in Hispanics, and 0.7% in African Americans.

So, how do you tell if a spot on your skin is a melanoma? There is no sure method. A lot of times, even doctors cannot tell a benign mole from a malignant melanoma, especially when it is still early and small. That is why dermatologists do so many shave biopsies in the office. The piece of skin is then specially stained and looked at under the microscope by pathologists to look for melanoma cells – then and only then can anyone be sure.

However, there are some helpful common sense guidelines. First, you should pay attention to your skin. Any new mole is more suspicious than one that has been around without change for years. Any mole that is very dark or grows quickly in size and thickness should sound off alarm bells. The experts do offer some helpful warning signs to look for – summarized as ABCD as follows: (A) asymmetry, (B) border irregularity, (C) color variation, and (D) diameter greater than 6mm. In men, melanoma occurs most commonly on the trunk, followed by arms, and head and neck areas. In women, it is found most commonly on the legs, followed by arms and then the trunk.

Some people are at particular high risk for developing melanoma. These patients should see a dermatologist at least once a year. High risk factors include family history of melanoma, previous skin cancer, childhood radiation, and dysplastic nevus syndrome. There is now a genetic blood test for a hereditary type of melanoma. You may consider this test for yourself or your family member if: a) you have had 3 separate melanomas, b) 3 or more members of your family have had melanoma, or c) 3 or more members of your family have had melanoma or pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, because there is no drug proven to prevent melanoma, high risk essentially just means more vigilance and more care to avoid direct sun exposure.

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