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Melanoma/Skin Cancer Health Center

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Frequently Asked Questions About Skin Cancer and Melanoma

  • Why Should I Care About Skin Cancer?
  • Answer:

    Skin cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in the United States. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma (nonmelanoma skin cancer) are the most common forms of skin cancer, but are easier to cure than melanoma. The number of new cases of skin cancer appears to be increasing each year. The number of deaths due to skin cancer, however, is fairly small.

  • What Is Melanoma Skin Cancer?
  • Answer:

    Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that begins in melanocytes (the cells that make the pigment melanin). Some melanomas may develop from moles, but most do not. Moles are very common. Most people have between 10 and 30 moles. If you have many moles, a careful, routine exam by your doctor or a dermatologist, along with monthly skin self-exams, may be recommended. 

    A person may develop new moles from time to time, usually until about age 40. Moles can be flat or raised. They are usually round or oval and no larger than a pencil eraser. Many moles begin as a small, flat spot and slowly become larger in diameter and raised. Over many years, they may flatten again, become flesh-colored, and go away.

  • Who Is at Risk for Melanoma?
  • Answer:

    No one knows the exact causes of melanoma. However, research has shown that people with certain melanoma risk factors are more likely than others to develop melanoma.

    People who have had at least one severe, blistering sunburn as a child or teenager are at increased risk of melanoma.

    Melanoma sometimes runs in families. Having two or more close relatives who have had this disease is a risk factor. About 10% of all patients with melanoma have a family member with this disease.

    Melanoma occurs more frequently in people who have fair skin that burns or freckles easily (these people also usually have red or blond hair and blue eyes) than in people with dark skin.

    The risk of melanoma is greatest for people who have a large number of atypical moles (called dysplastic nevi). About one in 20 people has at least one unusual mole that looks different from an ordinary mole. The risk is especially high for people with a family history of both atypical moles and melanoma.

    Caucasians, fair-skinned people living at low latitudes, and men ages of 50 to 60, have a higher risk of developing melanoma.

  • What Is the Best Skin Cancer Protection?
  • Answer:

    Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and from sunlamps and tanning booths damages the skin and can lead to melanoma and other types of skin cancer

    Study results have suggested that reducing exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation decreases the incidence of nonmelanoma skin cancer. Ultraviolet radiation is the high-energy rays coming from the sun. Artificial sources such as tanning booths and sunlamps also produce ultraviolet radiation.

    Reducing exposure to the sun, wearing protective clothing such as a hat and long sleeves, and using adequate amounts of sunscreen can help lower your risk of skin cancer. Sunscreens are rated in strength according to a sun protection factor (SPF). The higher the SPF, the more sunburn protection is provided. Sunscreens with an SPF value of 2 to 11 provide minimal protection against sunburns. Sunscreens with an SPF of 12 to 29 provide moderate protection. Those with an SPF of 30 or higher provide high protection against sunburn. Sunglasses that have UV-absorbing lenses should also be worn. The label should specify that the lenses block at least 99% of UVA and UVB radiation. However, it is not known if avoiding sunburns reduces a person's chance of developing melanoma skin cancer.

  • How Can I Do a Skin Self-Exam?
  • Answer:

    Here is how to do a skin self-exam:

    • After a bath or shower, stand in front of a full-length mirror in a bright room. Use a hand-held mirror to look at hard-to-see areas.
    • Begin with the face and scalp and work downward, checking the head, neck, shoulders, back, chest, and so on. Be sure to check the front, back, and sides of the arms and legs. Also, check the groin, the palms, the fingernails, the soles of the feet, the toenails, and the area between the toes.
    • Be sure to check the hard-to-see areas of the body, such as the scalp and neck. A friend or relative may be able to help inspect these areas. Use a comb or a blow dryer to help move hair so you can see the scalp and neck better.
    • Be aware of where your moles are and how they look. By checking your skin regularly, you will become familiar with what your moles look like. Look for any signs of change, particularly a new black mole or a change in outline, shape, size, color (especially a new black area), or feel of an existing mole. Also, note any new, unusual, or "ugly-looking" moles. If your doctor has taken photos of your skin, compare these pictures with the way your skin looks on self-exam.
    • Check moles carefully during times of hormone changes, such as adolescence, pregnancy, and menopause. As hormone levels change, moles may change.
    • It may be helpful to record the dates of your skin exams and to write notes about the way your skin looks. If you find anything unusual, see your doctor right away. Remember, the earlier a melanoma is found, the better the chance for a cure.

  • How Can I Tell if an Existing Mole Is Melanoma?
  • Answer:

    If you have a question or concern about something on your skin, see your doctor. Thinking of "ABCDE" can help you remember what to watch for:

    • Asymmetry -- The shape of one half does not match the other
    • Border -- The edges are often ragged, notched, blurred, or irregular in outline; the pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.
    • Color -- The color is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, grey, red, pink, or blue also may be seen.
    • Diameter -- Melanomas can be larger than the eraser of a pencil (1/4 inch or 5 millimeters) but early detection can find them even smaller.
    • Evolution -- Has the mole's appearance or feel changed over time?

     

  • How Is Melanoma Diagnosed?
  • Answer:

    If the doctor suspects that a spot on the skin is melanoma, the patient will need to have a biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to make a definite diagnosis. In this procedure, the doctor tries to remove all of the suspicious-looking growth. This is an excision. If the growth is too large to be removed entirely, the doctor removes a sample of the tissue. The doctor will rarely "shave off" and never cauterize a growth that might be melanoma.

    A biopsy can usually be done in the doctor's office using local anesthesia. A pathologist then examines the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. Sometimes it is helpful for more than one pathologist to check the tissue for cancer cells.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on July 28, 2014

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