Melanoma: Spotting the Problem
By Glen Gibson, MD
There’s a form of cancer you can spot with your own eyes: melanoma, or skin cancer. When caught early, it almost always can be cured. But left untreated, melanoma can become deadly.
What is melanoma?
This cancer develops when pigment-producing skin cells, called melanocytes, begin to grow and form a tumor, which can eventually spread to other parts of the body. Most melanomas develop from a mole or look like a new mole. In about 80 percent of people who develop melanoma, it is localized and curable. Exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning beds is a major risk factor for the disease. It’s not the sunburn you might have gotten on a recent vacation, but sun exposure years or decades ago, that can affect your risk of getting skin cancer. Melanoma rates in the U.S. are rising. One in 50 people will get melanoma in his or her lifetime.
What should you watch for?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there would be fewer deaths from melanoma if people regularly took time to do a proper skin exam. That means checking for moles on every part of your body, from your scalp to the bottoms of your feet and even under your fingernails. Be on the lookout for new moles or those that are growing or changing over time or that look different from the rest. Notice the shape, size and color of your moles. If you see any moles that concern you, or if you have a mole that itches, hurts or bleeds, talk with your doctor. Melanoma can occur at any age. The average age when people develop melanoma is 10 years younger than the age that people usually develop cancer of the breast, lung, colon or prostate. My recommendation is to talk to your dermatologist about how often to get a melanoma screening.
Glen Gibson, MD, is a surgical oncologist with AAMC Surgical Oncology where he uses the latest surgical approaches to treat and to manage an array of cancers. He can be reached at 443.481.3717. Visit askAAMC.org/cancer for more information.
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