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Melanoma: Prevention and Diagnosis

Nearly 70,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma each year; it is now twice as common as it was just 20 years ago. With this drastic increase, it’s more important than ever to learn how to lower your risk of developing melanoma.

Melanoma begins in melanocytes - the cells that produce melanin, which colors your skin, hair, and eyes. Melanoma can grow anywhere on or within the body, although it most commonly spreads on the surface of the skin. Melanoma can develop on an existing mole or unblemished skin. About one in 50 people develop melanoma in their lifetimes, and the risk of developing the disease increases with age, especially between the ages of 20 and 50.

Damaging UV rays from the sun are the main cause of melanoma. One of the main risk factors for developing melanoma includes childhood exposure to UV rays. But no matter your age, you can lower your risk of developing skin cancer by:

  • Limiting direct sun exposure. Try to limit your exposure to the sun, especially in the afternoon when the sun is strongest. When possible, find shaded areas outdoors.
  • Wear sunscreen. Avoid sunburns by using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Remember to reapply your sunscreen every two hours when spending extended amounts of time outdoors.
  • Avoid tanning. Tanning, either from the sun or a tanning bed, harms your skin. Try to avoid tanning in any form.
  • Wear protective clothing. Make sure to cover up by wearing hats and UV-blocking sunglasses.

Melanoma is most treatable when it’s detected early, so it’s important to examine your skin monthly for any changes or irregular growths. Melanoma is typically larger than a quarter of an inch—about the size of a pencil eraser. The most common places to develop melanoma include the face (especially for older adults), from the shoulders to the hips (especially for men), and the arms and legs (especially for women). Remember the ABCDE rule when checking your skin for melanoma:

  • Asymmetry. If you draw a line down the middle of a mole, both sides should match closely.
  • Border irregularity. A normal mole has clear, well-defined edges that set it apart from the skin. If the border has ragged, blurred edges, it may be a sign that it is cancerous.
  • Color. Cancerous moles often have varying colors or shades within them.
  • Diameter. Moles should stay consistent in size, and a normal mole should generally be a quarter of an inch or smaller.
  • Evolving. Healthy moles stay consistent over time. Perform regular skin checks to make sure no moles are changing in size or color.

If you suspect a mole or other growth may be melanoma, a doctor can perform a biopsy to test a small piece of the affected tissue. When diagnosed early, you can have the cancer and surrounding tissue removed before it spreads to other organs.

Ask your doctor about skin cancer detection, and learn more about preventing and, if necessary, treating melanoma. Take proper precautions to ensure that you keep your body healthy and cancer-free.

This article first appeared in the May 2017 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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