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Do you know your melanoma risk?
Diagnosing melanoma
Treating the disease

What does the cancer look like?
What does the cancer look like?

Five features help patients and healthcare providers recognize moles that might be melanoma:

A) asymmetry, or an irregular shape

B) borders that are irregular

C) color within the mole that’s variable or very dark, or a mole whose colors include white, gray, red or blue

D) diameter greater than one-quarter inch

E) evolving in appearance, such as changes in size, shape or color or the mole itches, oozes or bleeds.

In addition, an new “ugly” mole should be evaluated, as should any hard, lumpy or scaly mole.

Are you at increased risk for melanoma?
Are you at increased risk for melanoma?

Early detection is the most critical factor accounting for the increase in overall survival rates of patients with malignant melanoma during the past few decades. Everyone should be alert for signs of melanoma, but women with one or more risk factors for the disease should be especially watchful. Risk factors include:

  • family history of melanoma
  • red or blond hair
  • three or more blistering sunburns before age 20
  • the presence of numerous large nevi (moles)
  • actinic keratoses (skin lesions caused by sun exposure)
  • three or more years with outdoor summer jobs during the teenage years

Many young women don’t really know what melanoma is. Of those who do, most mistakenly believe it’s a disease only older people need worry about. But it’s not. Just ask Amy, who was 25 when she was diagnosed. Her doctor told her she probably wouldn’t have seen her 30th birthday had her mother, a registered nurse, not spotted the suspicious mole on her knee and encouraged her to have it evaluated.

Kelly was 23 when she was diagnosed. Her melanoma was discovered when she had a mole removed from her lower shin in preparation for her wedding day.

Melanoma is a cancer of the pigment-producing cells of the skin, which are called melanocytes. These are the cells that make dark skin dark and allow skin to tan.

If diagnosed and removed at an early stage, melanoma has a high cure rate. However, if the disease is diagnosed late, it’s likely to have spread and to eventually cause death.

The incidence of melanoma in the U.S. is rising rapidly. Unfortunately, a high proportion of U.S. residents are unaware of the dangers of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. In a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Dermatology, 42 percent of respondents had no knowledge of the disease. The level of awareness was lowest among people ages 18 to 24.

Diagnosing melanoma

If you find a suspicious mole on your body—the legs and back are most vulnerable, but melanoma can appear anywhere—have it evaluated by your healthcare provider or a dermatologist. If he or she is concerned about your mole, all or part of the suspicious growth will be cut out and examined under a microscope to see if it contains cancer. This is called a biopsy.

When melanoma is diagnosed, more tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. This process is called staging. Treatment is planned according to whether and how far the cancer has spread.

Treating the disease

Treatment is likely to include surgical removal of what remains of the cancer after biopsy, along with a portion of the skin surrounding the tumor.

In some cases, lymph nodes near the tumor may be removed even if no cancer is found there because melanoma often spreads to the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes may be removed if they’re found to be cancerous.

There is no standard treatment for melanoma that has spread beyond the regional lymph nodes, but some patients receive chemotherapy or immunotherapy (therapy intended to improve the immune system’s ability to fight disease).

Because melanoma can be prevented, it’s a shame that so many Americans are unaware of the disease. Spread the word to your family and friends that sunbathing is dangerous. A tan may be attractive by today’s standards, but it’s certainly not worth dying for. So stock up on sunscreen and hats, and keep reminding yourself that pale is pretty.