Protect Yourself From a Repeat Episode of Melanoma

How to stay safe if you've already had skin cancer.

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on June 01, 2015
3 min read

Tina Miller, 46, always worshipped the sun. "I used to go to tanning salons, and planned my vacations where I could lie out on the beach," she says.

But three years ago, she was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

"I never thought it would happen to me." But it did -- and will to nearly 74,000 Americans this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

And "once you've had one skin cancer, you're at risk for developing more," says Janet C. Lin, MD, a dermatologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Here's how to protect yourself if you've already had skin cancer.

Examine your skin monthly. Do it on the first day of every month, so you'll remember, Lin says.

"After your shower, stand in front of the bathroom mirror. Get a small handheld mirror to look at those difficult-to-find areas like your back," she says.

Check yourself head to toe. What to look for? Any changes in moles, such as bleeding, crusting, or itching, or any new growths, Lin says.

Know your ABCDEs, so you can recognize the warning signs of melanoma.

"A stands for asymmetry," Lin says. "If you mentally draw a line down the middle of the mole, the two halves should look the same" in a healthy mole.

B is for border. Borders in normal moles should be smooth, not uneven, ragged, or scalloped.

C stands for color. "You want to make sure your moles are one uniform color and similar in color to each other," Lin says.

D is for diameter, which in healthy moles should be the size of a pencil eraser or smaller.

E is for evolving. "Watch for any changes in the appearance, shape, size, and color of your moles over time," Lin says.

Read sunscreen labels. "You need to put on at least an SPF 30," she says.

"The second thing to look for is broad spectrum. That means it has UVA protection as well," which shields you from the ultraviolet rays that pierce deeper layers of the skin.

"The last thing to check is that it has some water resistance, especially if you plan to spend a long time outside."

Dress sun-smart. "Wear a hat and sunglasses, especially if you're going to be around sand or water, because they'll reflect ultraviolet light from the ground," Lin says.

Consider wearing sun-protective clothing, in which sunscreen materials are built into the fabric, she says. One or two pieces should be enough to get you through the season.

As for Miller, she had two lymph nodes removed, but luckily the melanoma hadn't spread. During one of her recent twice-yearly skin exams, her dermatologist found and removed another precancerous mole.

"I feel very fortunate that [the cancer] was found early. I wear a hat all the time and slather myself with sunscreen. I don't make it a priority to be tan."

1. How often should I have my skin checked?

2. Do I need to tell other family members to have skin exams?

3. Do I need to wear sunscreen every day?

4. How should I put on sunscreen? How much should I apply?

5. How can I make sure I get enough vitamin D if I avoid the sun?

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