Are You at Risk for Melanoma? Beware of Symptoms

Summer is upon us, bringing promises of fun in the sun for the whole family. Many take advantage of summer’s lazy days: laying poolside, beach-going, backyard barbeques. But amid all the pleasures that the great outdoors bring is a potentially deadly risk.

Melanoma is a skin cancer arising from the cells called Melanocytes, which produce a dark pigment called Melanin. While Melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer, it is the most aggressive. Melanoma only accounts for approximately four percent of skin cancer cases, but contributes to a large majority of skin cancer deaths.(1) Fortunately, it is often curable – if it is detected and treated early. According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, Melanoma is the most common cancer for women aged 25-29 and the second most common for women aged 30-34.(2)

The American Cancer Society estimates that 59,580 new Melanomas will be diagnosed in the United States during 2005, an increasing number. The Society further estimates that approximately 7,770 people in the U.S. are expected to die of Melanomas during 2005.(3)

Appearing initially as a “harmless” mole, the cancer can metastasize to other areas of the body and invade surrounding tissues.(4) Traditionally associated with sun over-exposure, recent studies also indicate that Melanoma may have a genetic link: people with a first-degree relative who has Melanoma have an increased risk up to eight times greater of developing the disease themselves.(5) Other risk factors include having over 100 moles, red or blonde hair, freckles, skin that burns but does not tan, and a history of blistering sunburns.(6) People with naturally darker skin have a lower risk of Melanoma, but skin color is no guarantee that Melanoma won’t develop. Individuals with darker skin can still develop Melanomas on the palms of their hands, soles of their feet and even under their nails.

Melanoma is initially painless and may appear simply as new mole, or as a change in the size, color, shape or feel of an existing mole. Suspicious moles or freckles that appear unusual, crust over, or bleed should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible. When performing a self-examination, look for the “ABCD symptoms:”

Asymmetry – one side of the growth will have a different shape than the other;
Border – the growth will have irregular or uneven edges;
Color – the growth will be of more than one colorâÂ?¦often black, shades of brown and tan, or even specks of red and white; and
Diameter – the edge-to-edge size of the growth is bigger than a pencil eraser.

In men, Melanoma is found most often on the area between the shoulders and hips or on the head and neck. In women, Melanoma often develops on the arms and lower legs. It may also appear under the fingernails or toenails or on the palms or soles. While the cancer can be suspected based on visualization of the growths, a biopsy is the only way to confirm the diagnosis.(7)

Practical measures for the prevention of Melanoma include use of sunscreen, avoidance of sunburn, staying out of direct sun between 11am-3pm, and wearing of protective clothing (hat, long sleeves) to minimize excessive exposure.

Melanoma is often treated by a team of specialists, including a Dermatologist, Surgeon and Oncologist. Surgical excision of the lesion is typically performed, and in some cases may be all that is needed. More aggressive cases may require follow-up Chemotherapy, Radiation or Biological therapy.

If you’ve gotten burned, try the following tips:

– Cool the skin: compresses of equal parts milk and water can bring relief to burned areas. Cold baths with a half-cup of cooked oatmeal, one cup of baking soda, or brewed (and chilled) chamomile tea added can be soothing.
– Drink plenty of water.
– Take aspirin or other over-the-counter pain medicine.
– Use a sunburn lotion containing Aloe Vera.
– Try this! Cut a raw potato in half and rub the halves over the sunburned areas to cool and relieve the pain. It works!

Call your doctor immediately if nausea, fever, chills, rash, faintness, dizziness, rapid pulse, rapid breathing or increased thirst after being sunburned occur.

1, 3-American Cancer Society, Inc. “What Are the Key Statistics About Melanoma?” Online: Accessed June 21, 2005.
2-The Melanoma Research Foundation. “Melanoma Facts.” Online: Accessed June 23, 2005.
4, 5-Dr. Joseph F. Smith Medical Library Trust. “Malignant Melanoma.” Online: Accessed June 22, 2005.
6- Women’s College Hospital Foundation, Sunnybrook & Women’s College Health Sciences Centre. “Women’s Health Matters.” Online: Accessed June 20, 2005.
7-EHealthMD. “What is Melanoma?” Online: Accessed June 23, 2005.

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