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:
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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
- In dark-skinned people, melanoma usually appears under the toenails
and fingernails, on the palms of the hands, or on the bottom of the
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:
And Now, a Message to All Parents
- 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
- 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.
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.