Melanoma strikes approximately 100,000 Americans annually, making it one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the U.S. Older adults who have experienced decades of skin exposure to the sun are particularly vulnerable to this potentially deadly disease. But if caught early, melanoma is highly curable, according to AARP.
About 85% of melanoma cases are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, so being sun-smart and avoiding exposure is one step in the direction of prevention.
But Lisa Lynn, a fitness and nutrition expert who was Martha Stewart’s personal trainer for 13 years and a melanoma survivor herself, tells Newsmax that it is not only the sun that causes this disease. Tanning beds also cause cancer. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, indoor tanning beds increases the risk of melanoma, especially in women younger than 45.
Lynn, co-author of “Win the Fight: Stomp Out Melanoma,” with Dr. Deepak Narayan, says that early detection is key in preventing the progression of the disease and increasing your odds of survival.
“Skin self-checks are an early warning system,” she notes. “Patients find most melanomas themselves, so it is important to take responsibility. Mark all your moles and record them on your cell phone or piece of paper. Mark the position of each mole, freckle, birthmark, bump, or scaly patch you see by making a dot on a body map.”
Do a monthly self-check to note any skin changes. Here are the ABCDE’s of what to look for:
- Asymmetry. If you can draw a straight line through the mole and both sides are similar, it is probably benign. But if the two halves do not match, this may be a warning sign of melanoma.
- Border. The borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven and may appear to be scalloped or notched, while benign moles have even edges.
- Color. Most benign moles are all one color, often a single shade of brown. But having a variety of color in one mole is another warning sign of cancer. A number of different shades of brown, black, or tan may appear. A melanoma may have patches of red, white, or blue.
- Diameter. “Most melanomas are larger than one-quarter inch, or 6 millimeters,” says Lynn. “That’s about the size of a small pencil eraser.”
- Evolution. “Changes in a mole mean it is growing, and that is one of the most important things to look for,” says Lynn. “It is imperative to keep a close watch for any moles or spots on the skin that change in shape, size, or color. See your doctor right away if this happens.” Other dangerous changes include bleeding, itching, or crusting.
According to AARP, there are also less obvious signs of melanoma. For example, Dr. Elizabeth Buchbinder, an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston says that people who have lots of moles should look for the ones that appear different from the others.
“If you have a bunch of dark moles, but you have 50 of them, they’re not all melanomas,” she says. “But if you have one mole that really looks different, and it’s kind of the ugly duckling, that’s the one that you should really want to get looked at and checked.”
Although most melanomas are caused by UV light, some aren’t. Check the soles of your feet and palms of your hand for dark streaks. Musician Bob Marley thought the mark under his toenail was caused by a bruise, and eventually died from melanoma. Buchbinder says she has also seen rare cases of melanoma develop on the eye, inside the mouth or on the scalp. According to AARP, these hidden melanomas are more apt to strike people with darker skin.
People on blood pressure medications should also be cautious spending time outdoors as these drugs make you more susceptible to sunburn, which amplifies your risk of skin cancer and melanoma. Wear protective clothing and sunglasses that block UV rays. Use sunscreen liberally whenever you go out to protect against sun damage. And make sure your sunscreen includes the most effective ingredients, and does not contain known carcinogens, such as benzene.
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