Did you know melanoma causes just 1% of all skin cancers but the majority of skin cancer deaths?
All skin cancers begin as an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, mostly in the epidermis. The primary cause is excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays, either from the sun or artificial sources such as tanning beds. About 1 in 5 people develop skin cancer by age 70.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that occurs when special cells called melanocytes begin to grow out of control. Melanocytes are the cells that give our skin its color. Most melanoma tumors appear brown or black, but they may also be white, pink or tan. Melanomas can appear almost anywhere on the body, including the face, neck, back, chest, arms or legs.
The good news is you can reduce your risk of melanoma by protecting yourself from UV radiation. Here’s what you need to know about the main risk factors and how to stay safe year–round.
Skin Cancer Prevalence
Although melanoma isn’t the most common form of skin cancer, it is by far the most dangerous.
However, about 3.3 million Americans are diagnosed with nonmelanoma skin cancers each year. About 80% of these are basal cell carcinoma, which is the most common skin cancer. Most of the remaining cases are squamous cell carcinoma. Both cancers have an excellent prognosis when caught early. Of the 2,000 Americans who die from these cancers each year, most are due to a lack of early detection.
In contrast, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 97,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2023, with about 8,000 deaths expected. That’s 4 times the death rate of nonmelanoma skin cancers.
Risk Factors for Melanoma
By far the biggest risk factor for melanoma is excessive exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or tanning beds. All it takes is one severe, blistering sunburn to increase your chance of getting it. The more sunburns you’ve had, the greater your risk.
In addition to UV rays, there are other factors that increase your risk:
- Having a large number of moles or large moles with irregular borders.
- Having a light skin tone. People with all skin tones can get melanoma, but the risk increases for those with lighter skin.
- Where you live. The sun’s rays are strongest near the equator and at high altitudes. People living in tropical regions or at high elevations need extra protection.
- Family history. You are at greater risk if a close relative – such as a parent or sibling – has had melanoma.
- Weakened immune system. Take extra precautions if you have a medical condition or take any medications which may reduce your ability to ward off infections.
Reduce Your Risk of Melanoma
Most people already know to slather on the sunscreen on a hot summer day.
The bad news is that the sun’s cancer-causing rays don’t go on vacation in the winter. They also don’t disappear on cloudy days. It’s also important to note that ultraviolet rays reflect off of other surfaces such as water, sand and snow.
Your first line of defense is to try to avoid the sun’s harshest rays, which are between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Seek shade, cover up or simply stay inside. Whenever possible, plan your outdoor activities either earlier or later in the day.
Secondly, don’t throw out that sunscreen in the fall! A quality, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater should be applied every day, even if it’s raining or snowing outside. Remember to reapply every 2 hours when you’re spending time outdoors and even more often if you’re swimming or sweating.
Wear protective clothing made with tightly woven fabrics. Keep your arms and legs covered, wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and sunglasses with UV protection to shield your eyes. Ask your dermatologist to recommend clothing and eyewear brands that offer the best sun protection.
Don’t use tanning beds and sun lamps. These devices emit harmful levels of UV radiation and increase your risk of melanoma. There is no such thing as a healthy tan, and even a so-called “base” tan offers no protection against sunburn.
Finally, check your skin regularly. Early detection is the key to a good prognosis for those diagnosed with melanoma. Look for new growths or moles that suddenly change shape or color. Check your face, neck, ears, scalp, trunk, arms and legs. Use a mirror to help. Make skin checks a part of your routine when bathing or changing clothes.
If you’re concerned about unexplained changes in your skin, schedule a consultation with Cayce Dermatology. We specialize in diagnosis and removal of cancerous lesions. Our board-certified dermatologist and highly trained staff work closely with each patient to recommend the best course of treatment.
You may call us at 573-234-1000 or contact us online to schedule your appointment.