Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed annually in the U.S. More than 3 million people in the U.S. receive a non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosis each year. And almost 100,000 receive a diagnosis of melanoma each year, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Though melanoma occurs far less often than other types of skin cancer, it is, by far, the most dangerous one. Deaths from non-melanoma skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are rare. But almost 8,000 people die every year from melanoma.
Learn more about what melanoma is, who’s most at risk, how to protect yourself against it, and how to spot it early.
What Is Melanoma?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin). These cells can grow out of control due to damage from excess exposure to UV light (mainly from the sun).
Melanoma is more dangerous than basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas because it’s much more likely to metastasize (spread to other parts of the body).
Survival rates for melanoma
Melanoma is easiest to treat and has the highest survival rates when caught early. In fact, if you catch melanoma before it spreads (metastasizes), your five-year survival rate is greater than 99%.
Your survival rate falls to 71% when the cancer has spread regionally. And if the cancer has spread to distant parts of your body, your five-year survival rate is only 32%.
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Who Is at Risk for Melanoma?
Anyone can get melanoma, regardless of their skin color or age. But some people are more at risk than others. Here are the main things that increase your risk of developing melanoma:
- Multiple sunburns, especially in childhood.
- A history of using tanning beds.
- Moles. People with many moles are more at risk of getting melanoma in their lifetime. People with atypical moles, congenital moles, and atypical mole syndrome are especially at risk.
- A family history of melanoma or other skin cancers.
- A previous personal history of melanoma. If you’ve had it, you’re more likely than average to get it again.
- A weak immune system. This could be from medication — for example, the medications that people with transplanted organs take to prevent rejection. It could also be from a disease that weakens the immune system, like AIDS.
- Being older. The older you are, the more likely you are to develop melanoma.
- Xeroderma pigmentosum. This is a rare genetic disorder that impairs skin cells’ ability to repair DNA damage. People with this condition tend to freckle and burn extremely easily.
- Blue or green eyes.
- Light skin. In fact, white people are more than 30 times more likely to develop melanoma than non-Hispanic Black people.
“Fair-skinned people are at higher risk of developing melanoma,” says John M. Kirkwood, MD, medical oncologist and melanoma expert and researcher at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “This is especially true for those with light or red hair who burn easily after very little sun exposure. And that risk increases if they have a family history of melanoma.”
How to Protect Yourself Against Melanoma
The trigger for melanoma is excess exposure to UV light, primarily from the sun. That means you can lower your risk of melanoma by lowering your exposure to UV light.
Here are the best ways to do that:
- Stay out of direct sunlight during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Wear protective clothing — such as wide-brimmed hats and light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and pants — when out in the sun.
- Use sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB rays and have a high SPF (15 or above). Sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide are good choices.
- Avoid tanning beds. The UV light from tanning beds, like the UV rays from the sun, can lead to melanoma and other skin cancers.
Spotting Melanoma Early
To catch melanoma early, you need to check your skin regularly for new moles and changes to existing moles. And if you have any risk factors, you should talk with your provider about regular skin cancer checks.
When looking at any moles and growths on your skin, remember to look for ABCDE warning signs:
- Asymmetry — one side of the mole is different from the other.
- Border — is irregular, ragged, or poorly defined.
- Color — is not uniform and instead has shades of tan, brown, or black, or sometimes even white, red, or blue.
- Diameter — wider than the eraser of a pencil (but sometimes smaller).
- Evolving — the mole or skin lesion looks different than it used to. Maybe it has changed in size, shape, or color. Or maybe it just looks different than all the other moles you have (also known as the “ugly duckling” principle).
“If you notice a change, call your doctor (if they’re trained in skin cancer detection), or consult a dermatologist or melanoma specialist. You don’t have to be seen the same day, but don’t ignore it,” Dr. Kirkwood says.
Regular Skin Cancer Checks
Though you should contact a health care professional to check any suspicious growths, it’s also valuable to get a regular skin cancer screening. That could be once every year or two if you have any risk factors or if you’ve had any type of skin cancer in the past.
A provider will have you strip down to a gown and your underwear to examine your entire body for suspicious growths. They can see parts of your body you can’t see well (like your back) and can even examine your scalp. If they see anything suspicious, they can biopsy it on the spot.
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center offers free skin cancer screenings by a specialist on the third Friday of each month. To make an appointment, call 412-692-4724.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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