Melanoma: A killer to avoid with great care

You’ve probably heard of bloody Sunday, wacky Wednesday and “thank goodness, it’s Friday.” Well, today is Melanoma Monday.

I realize that this may not sound good for the start of your work week, but it’s the moniker given to the first Monday of May by the American Academy of Dermatology. The idea is to raise awareness about the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Taking all its forms into account, skin cancer is the leading cause of cancer in the United States. Unfortunately, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is on the rise with an estimated increase of 2 to 3 percent annually among men and women.

Melanoma is by far the most serious form of skin cancer, affecting more than 55,000 Americans annually with more than 8,000 deaths each year. Caught in its earliest stages, it can be easily cured.

However, if it spreads into the deeper layers of skin, invading blood vessels, it can spread throughout the body. Malignant melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

Melanoma is an abnormal growth of pigmented skin cells. It has several characteristics, known as the ABCDE’s. “A” is for asymmetry, in which one half of a pigmented mole is different than the other half. “B” is for the irregularly shaped border of a melanoma lesion. “C” stands for the variation in color of the lesion. “D” refers to the increased diameter of melanoma, usually larger than the size of a pencil eraser. Finally, “E” stands for the evolving nature of melanoma, characterized by changes in size, shape and color.

Early detection is the key to curing this dangerous disease. To help in detection, the American Academy of Dermatology has developed the “body mole map,” which provides a system for self-examination of skin, including features worrisome for melanoma.

It can be found on the academy’s website at www.aad.org. For certain people at high risk, an annual visit to a dermatologist for a full skin examination may be warranted.

In addition to the importance of early detection, prevention is the key to reducing the risk of harm from melanoma. The key to skin cancer prevention is protecting your skin from harmful ultraviolet radiation, such as from the sun and from indoor tanning booths.

Indoor tanning has been significantly associated with the risk of melanoma and should be avoided. In fact, the practice of indoor tanning to develop a base tan before a tropical vacation actually increases the likelihood of melanoma.

Sun protection includes focusing outdoor activities outside the times of day when sun exposure is most intense, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunscreen, rated for UVA and UVB protection and with sun protection factor, or SPF, of 30 or above should be applied 20 minutes before outdoor activity and then every two hours.

Don’t forget to protect your kids. The majority of our sun exposure occurs during childhood, and excessive sun exposure during childhood substantially increases melanoma risk later in life.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.

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