10 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Melanoma

  • couple looking at computer
    How do you avoid the most dangerous skin cancer?
    Melanoma is only found in about 1% of skin cancers. But it is by far the most dangerous type to get, especially when it has a chance to spread beyond the skin to other parts of the body. The five-year survival rate for advanced melanoma is 28%, with about 10,000 Americans expected to die from it this year alone. When you understand the significance of melanoma, you’ll want to take steps to protect yourself. Start by learning what melanoma specialists have to say.

  • Skin Cancer Removal
    1. "It's not 'just skin cancer.'"
    Some people think melanoma can be treated relatively easily and that it’s rarely life threatening. But, cautions Dr. Susana Ortiz-Urda, a dermatologist and co-director of the University of California at San Francisco Melanoma Center, "Melanoma is an aggressive type of cancer that can be fatal if not caught early." Melanoma arises from skin cells called melanocytes and grows faster and deeper into the skin than the more common types of skin cancer, such as basal cell carcinoma.


  • Group of Seniors
    2. "Anybody can get melanoma."
    People with lighter skin and eyes are more likely to get melanoma, as are those 70 and older. But it also strikes teens and younger people as well as non-Caucasians. In fact, people with darker skin, such as African Americans and Latino/Hispanic Americans, are more likely to have melanoma detected when it is advanced and therefore more deadly, according to Dr. Mark B. Faries, oncology surgeon and melanoma expert at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. Other risk factors: family history of skin cancer, past sunburns, tanning bed use, skin that burns easily or is hard to tan, and excess moles.


  • Dermatologist checking women's back
    3. "See your doctor regularly to check for melanoma."
    "Early detection is key," says Dr. Isabella Glitza Oliva, melanoma specialist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. "Know your skin and point out any new or changing lesions to your physician." If you see anything on your skin that concerns you, don't wait months for your next appointment, advises Dr. Faries. Get in as soon as possible.


  • Man in mirror touching his face
    4. “Examine your skin regularly."
    Do your own self-exams monthly, checking not only obvious spots like your arms, face, torso and legs, but also your scalp, between your toes and on the bottoms of your feet. Ask others to help you view hard-to-see spots like your back. “Melanoma is not always dark brown or black and it can appear in areas not exposed to the sun,” says Dr. Ortiz-Urda. “Some melanomas do not make melanin and do not stand out. They can appear pink, tan, red or even white.”


  • measuring mole, skin mole, skin, mole
    5. "Keep an eye out for 'ugly ducklings.’”
    When checking your skin for melanoma, look for "ABCD"—moles that are Asymmetrical (one half different from the other), have Borders that are irregular, Color that is uneven, and Diameter bigger than a pencil eraser, according to Dr. Faries. Also find "the ugly ducklings," says Dr. Ortiz-Urda—that is, moles that stand out or look different from the rest of your moles.


  • Pediatrician, Nurse and Patient
    6. "Get screened at puberty if you are at risk."
    People with a family history of melanoma—such as a parent or sibling—should get a baseline dermatologic screening at puberty, recommends Dr. Faries. Then after that, these patients should follow their doctor's advice as to when to come back for further screenings. Generally, people at high risk should see their doctor annually to have their skin checked, he says.


  • SPF30 written on back in white cream
    7. "Be wary and watchful when in the sun."
    Sun worshippers can still enjoy warm rays—but “need to be smart about it,” says Dr. Faries. This means avoiding direct sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., using a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with at least a 30 SPF and reapplying it every two hours, and covering up with a hat, sunglasses, and clothing (long-sleeved shirts and pants) where possible. “Some people claim sunscreen is unsafe or can cause cancer,” says Dr. Oliva. “Sunscreen has been shown to be safe and to decrease your risk of having melanoma.”


  • Don't Tan on Purpose
    8. "There's no such thing as a safe tan.”
    Sometimes people think if they go to a tanning salon in advance of an upcoming vacation to a tropical destination, they can get a “base tan” that will protect them from the sun, says Dr. Faries. But this is a misconception. A suntan isn’t a protective covering, but rather a response by your cells to DNA damage caused by ultraviolet radiation. (Note: Dr. Faries says spray tans “appear to be safe,” though he doesn’t like the way they support the notion that to look good, you should be tan.)


  • A Newer Treatment Option
    9. "New melanoma treatments are bringing new hope."
    Advanced melanoma used to be "kind of a black hole, depressing area in oncology because there had been so little progress," says Dr. Faries. "Now there is more hope than there has ever been in the history of the disease.” He points to "an incredible revolution" in "dramatically better" treatments in the past 5 to 6 years, such as targeted therapies that attack cancer at a genetic level and immunotherapy that amps up your body's defenses to fight off the disease.


  • Mans hands on laptop computer
    10. "Get a second opinion from a specialist."
    Because the medications now treating advanced melanoma are so new—with 10 new drugs approved just since 2010—it's important to find a doctor who is up to date on these latest treatments and who can advise you on which one is right for you. Dr. Faries recommends seeking a second opinion from specialists well-versed in advanced melanoma care.


10 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Melanoma
Contributors

About The Author

Lorna Collier has been reporting on health topics—especially mental health and women’s health—as well as technology and education for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in the AARP Bulletin, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News, CNN.com, the APA’s Monitor on Psychology, and many others. She’s a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Association of Health Care Journalists.
  1. Skin Cancer Facts. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/sunanduvexposure/skin-cancer-facts
  2. Skin Cancer Facts. Skin Cancer Foundation. http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts#melanoma
  3. Siegel, RL, Miller, KD, Jemal, A. Cancer Statistics, 2016. CA Cancer J Clin. 2016;66:7–30. 
  4. What Are the Key Statistics About Melanoma Skin Cancer? American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/skincancer-melanoma/detailedguide/melanoma-skin-cancer-key-statistics
  5. Uong A, Zon LI. Melanocytes in Development and Cancer. J Cell Physiol. 2010;222(1):38-41.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 1
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