What Is Melanoma?
Patricia Zifferblatt | January 1, 2007

This is a question we’re getting asked more frequently at Better Life, especially since First Lady Laura Bush had a cancerous spot removed from her leg in November (a squamous cell carcinoma, not melanoma.) It’s no wonder we hear it so often because of the love affair so many people have with tanning. The beliefs that “One can never be too tan” or “A tanned body is a healthy body” are completely untrue and potentially dangerous.

Let me explain. Skin cancer throughout the world is on a rapid uphill climb, and of the three main types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most serious:
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is rough and reddish and is found on parts of the body that have been exposed to the sun.

  • Basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer, is much darker than the squamous cell type.

  • Malignant melanoma is the third most common form of skin cancer and the deadliest; it accounts for up to 80% of all skin-cancer deaths. Malignant melanoma is darker than the other two, nearly black.
More than 50,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with melanoma every year, with a 3% annual rise in reported cases. When caught early, melanoma is treatable and recovery rates are very good--the cure rate with early detection and surgical removal is 96 percent. However, when it isn’t diagnosed and treated early, melanoma can grow deeper into the skin and spread to other parts of the body, resulting in death.

How to Identify Melanoma
The first sign of melanoma is often a change in the size, shape, or color of an existing mole, or the appearance of a new mole.
  • In men, melanoma most often occurs on the upper body, between the shoulders and hips, and on the head or neck.

  • In women, melanoma usually develops on the lower legs as it did with Mrs. Bush.

  • In dark-skinned people, melanoma usually appears under the toenails and fingernails, on the palms of the hands, or on the bottom of the feet.
It’s important to mention that although these are the parts of the body where melanoma appears most frequently, it can occur anywhere on the skin. The chances of anyone developing a melanoma increase with age, but melanoma is most common in young adults. Keep in mind that the lighter your skin and eyes, the more susceptible you are to skin cancer.

So What’s a Body to Do?
First and foremost, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Set a regular schedule to have your body checked for any unusual or new moles, a change in color of any mole, crusty skin growths, a sore that does not heal or bleeds frequently, or any changes in the skin.

Here are some guidelines to help you prevent melanoma from developing:
  • Avoid the strongest rays of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

  • Dress for the outdoors when you work or play in the sun. Wear a hat and cover your arms and legs to prevent the UV rays from damaging yoru skin.

  • All year round, apply a sunscreen with at least 15 SPF (sun protection factor) before going outdoors and reapply the sunscreen often, especially if you’re in the water or sweating. Check the label to see how often to reapply.

  • Don’t use sun-tanning beds and booths.

  • Report any changes in your skin to your doctor.
And Now, a Message to All Parents
Sunburns are most damaging to infants and children. Don’t allow a baby less than six months old to be in direct sunlight. For children six months and over, always apply a sunscreen to exposed skin before the child goes outdoors, even in winter. In addition, train your child to wear a hat and protective clothing when playing outdoors. Make it a habit for life.

For more information on melanoma, go to The Melanoma Research Foundation, The American Cancer Society, or The American Academy of Family Physicians. Unsure what to look for? For photos of melanomas, see The Skin Cancer Foundation or Medline Plus Encyclopedia.
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