Take steps to reduce your risk of melanoma

Melanoma, the deadliest and most aggressive form of skin cancer, results in an estimated 10,000 deaths each year. Although it can sometimes be hard to spot, healthy habits and proper screenings can reduce your risk. Detection and early treatment is critical.

If you’re concerned about a possible case of melanoma or have more questions regarding care and treatment, call UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at 412-647-2811 to make an appointment.

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Basic Melanoma Facts: What You Need to Know

According to Linda Robertson, DrPH, of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, melanoma is a cancer of pigment-producing skin cells. These cells reside deep within the skin, making the cancer hard to detect. Pigment gives skin its color, and it also gives color to moles. A mole can potentially be cancerous or noncancerous (benign). People with more moles are at higher risk for melanoma as are those with fair skin, freckles, light hair, and blue or green eyes. A family history of the disease and exposure to ultraviolet light also increase your risk.

“People often don’t know that melanoma can appear under your fingernails or toenails, on the palms of your hands, and on the soles of your feet,” says Dr. Robertson. “It can also occur in mucous membranes such as the vagina, anus, mouth, and nose. On rare occasions, there is melanoma of the eye.” Once melanoma has taken hold, the cancer can spread to any part of the body.

Diagnosis often begins with a biopsy, in which a small sample of the suspected melanoma is removed and sent to the lab for testing. Treatment depends on the size, location, and depth of the cancer, and if other tissue is involved. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are possible treatment options.

Melanoma Symptoms and Warning Signs

When you’re watching for melanoma symptoms, Dr. Robertson says to remember your ABCDEs. Each letter stands for a characteristic of moles that can possibly indicate melanoma.

ABCDEs of melanoma

  • Asymmetry:  “If you could fold a mole in half, those halves should be equal; they should look identical,” says Dr. Robertson. If they’re not, the mole could be cancerous.
  • Border: “Melanomas tend to have an uneven border,” she explains. A melanoma may be ragged and uneven.
  • Color: Benign moles are often a single shade of brown, while melanomas tend to have various shades of brown and other colors.
  • Diameter: Melanomas tend to be larger than noncancerous moles. If a mole gets larger or appears suddenly, it should be examined.
  • Evolution: When a mole starts to change in any way, it’s time to see a doctor. “It’s important to know your body,” she advises.

Melanoma Prevention

Protecting yourself from the sun is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of melanoma. It’s important to use sunscreen throughout the year — not just during the summer.

So do you just slather on some SPF 100 before leaving the house? Here’s Dr. Robertson’s advice: “Sunscreen should be broad spectrum, protecting against both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF, or sun protective factor, of at least 30. There is no need to go beyond SPF 50.” Sunscreen with an SPF above 50 generally costs more without adding protection.

Keep in mind that sunscreen is not once-and-done protection; reapplying it every two hours is crucial. “If you are sweating a lot, then you should apply it more often,” advises Dr. Robertson. How much? “You’ll need to use a shot glass full of sunscreen to cover your body.”

And be sure to avoid tanning beds. According to Dr. Robertson, just one session in a tanning bed increases your risk of melanoma by 75 percent.

If you’re concerned about a possible case of melanoma or have more questions regarding care and treatment, call UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at 412-647-2811 to make an appointment.

Questions about full, in-network access to UPMC doctors and hospitals? Call our help line at 1-855-646-8762.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.