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Melanoma on the Rise in the U.S.

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Non-melanoma skin cancers -- usually basal cell (BCC) and squamous cell (SCC) cancers -- are the most common skin cancers, with more than 1 million new cases diagnosed every year in the U.S. When these cancers are detected and treated at an early stage, they are almost invariably cured. These types usually don't metastasize, or spread beyond the epidermis.

Melanoma, meanwhile, begins in the melanocytes, the cells that produce the skin coloring or pigment known as melanin. These cells are found in the base of the epidermis.

The six largest risk factors for developing melanoma are:

  • Family or personal history of malignant melanoma
  • Presence of blond or red hair
  • Presence of marked freckling on the upper back
  • History of three or more blistering sunburns prior to age 20
  • History of three or more years of an outdoor summer job as a teen-ager
  • Having unusual looking moles and/or an increase in the number of freckles on the body.

People with one or two of these risk factors have more than three times the risk for developing malignant melanoma, compared with the general population, Rigal says. Those with three or more of the factors have a 20-fold increased risk.

For people whose parents allowed them to baste on the beach with suntan oil in the 1950s and '60s -- and who suffered serious sunburns and blisters as a result -- Rigel says frequent skin inspections are the best course of action.

The key is to catch melanomas early, when they're small. Early signs of melanoma can be recognized using the following "ABCD" guide for checking moles on the skin:

  • Asymmetry. Most early lesions grow at an uneven rate, resulting in an asymmetric pattern.
  • Border Irregularity. The uneven growth rate also results in an irregular border.
  • Color Variegation. Irregular growth also causes new shades of black, and light and dark brown.
  • Diameter. Lesions with ABC features and diameters of greater than 6 mm should be considered suspicious.

 

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