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May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a great time to learn how to protect your skin from sun damage that can lead to cancer.
The risk of melanoma increases with age, but the skin damage responsible typically occurs in younger years.
Swedish medical oncologist Kelly Paulson, M.D., Ph.D., discusses signs and new treatments.
With the summer months right around the corner, you’ll soon have plenty of opportunities to get outside and enjoy sunny weather. If you’re fair-skinned, trying for that golden tan can be tempting. Even if you have darker skin, you may want to feel the warm sun on your face. Regardless of your skin tone, though, you must be cautious because sun exposure is damaging. Being aware of the possible long-term consequences can protect your health.
The more hours you spend in the sun, the greater your risk of developing skin cancer as you age. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. In fact, one in five people will be diagnosed with some form during their lives.
Melanoma, an invasive type of skin cancer, only makes up 1% of skin cancer cases, but it’s responsible for most skin cancer deaths. In fact, this year, nationwide, approximately 7,650 will die of melanoma.
It’s an upward trend that isn’t slowing down.
“The number of cases continues to rise,” says Kelly Paulson, M.D., Ph.D., a medical oncologist with Swedish Cancer Institute. “This cancer is very preventable and early detection matters. Consequently, we need to call attention to it.”
Fortunately, she says, there are simple ways you can recognize melanoma, and the Food & Drug Administration has also approved several new treatment options over the past two years.
Why does melanoma awareness matter?
Having a better understanding of melanoma is important, Dr. Paulson says, because it can take years — sometimes decades — for the effects of sun exposure to appear. To avoid potential cancers, you must take precautions earlier in life.
“We have lots of people who didn’t wear sunscreen when they were kids or adolescents or young adults,” she says. “They got lots of sun exposure and probably lots of sunburns, so they’re at greater risk for melanoma.”
For cases to start decreasing, people need to know more. May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness month. It’s a prime opportunity to learn about what causes melanoma, how you can identify it and what you can do to protect yourself.
What increases your melanoma risk?
Ultraviolet rays from the sun are the No. 1 factor that increases your risk of melanoma, Dr. Paulson says. Although melanoma is 20 times more common in white people than Black people, sun damage affects everyone.
“It’s important to note that not all people who develop melanoma are fair-skinned,” she says. “All people of all skin types are at risk.”
There are several other factors that can bump up your risk:
- Immune suppression: Some conditions that weaken your immune system, such as viruses like HIV or autoimmune diseases, can increase the likelihood you will develop melanoma.
- Medications: Your risk is higher if you take certain types of blood pressure medications or need immunosuppressive drugs due to an organ transplant.
- Genetics: Having one or more close biological relatives, such as a parent or sibling, who had melanoma increases your risk. One in 10 patients diagnosed has a family history.
How can you identify melanoma?
The key to successfully treating melanoma is early detection, Dr. Paulson says. Luckily, most melanoma spots share some of the same characteristics, making them easy to identify.
“We know a lot about how to diagnose melanoma,” she says. “These tests let us know pretty much right away if we need to start treatment.”
When checking your skin for suspicious spots, remember your ABCs. Look for these typical characteristics:
Asymmetry: An irregular shape, such as one that has a smaller or bigger half.
Border: A border that isn’t smooth — it can be notched or wavy.
Color: More than one color or uneven color distribution throughout the spot.
Diameter: A size equal to a pencil eraser — approximately one-fourth of an inch.
Evolution: Changes in size, color, or shape over time, as well as new symptoms, such as bleeding.
Overall, Dr. Paulson says, watch out for any spots that look different from all the others on your body.
“Those are the ones that cause us to be concerned. If a place on your body is behaving differently than the others, that’s something you need to bring to your doctor’s attention,” she says. “These ABCDE features can be really helpful to identify something that needs further evaluation and even biopsy.”
Available treatment options
The size and stage of your cancer, as well as whether it’s spread, determine your treatment choices. Surgery is typically a good option for most early-stage cancers, but the more advanced disease may require radiation and chemotherapy.
Over the last two years, though, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved new leading-edge therapies:
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors: These drugs target proteins in your immune cells that must be turned on or off to respond to melanoma cells. When these medications are paired with surgery, they reduce the likelihood that melanoma cells will return by half.
- KIMMTRAK® (Tebentafusp): This medication is designed to treat ocular melanoma, melanoma that affects your eyes. The drug activates your immune cells and pushes them to recognize melanoma cells as a threat and attack cancer.
- Combination immunotherapies: This group of new combination immunotherapies can treat various cancers based on the features of the exact melanoma you have, your goals and wishes, and the level of aggressiveness needed.
“These immunotherapies can be effective even for patients with stage 4 melanoma where cancer has spread to the brain,” she says. “Many times, we can get their melanoma in remission and have it stay that way for many years.”
How to protect yourself
Even if you’ve had lots of sun exposure in the past, there are still things you can do to limit your melanoma risk now. Dr. Paulson suggests taking these steps to protect your skin:
- Avoid mid-day sun when UV rays are strongest.
- Don’t use tanning beds.
- Use a sunblock with at least SPF 30 every time you’re outside.
- Wear sun-protective clothing.
Ultimately, she says, being proactive about your doctor visits is the best way to protect yourself.
“Go to the doctor and get your regular skin checks,” she says. “If you see something that’s new or different that you or maybe a spouse or loved one is concerned about, go ahead and get it checked out.”
Find a doctor
If you have questions about melanoma or skin cancer, contact the dermatology department at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.
Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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