What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer

Think having that mole checked can wait? You could be dead wrong. Here, what you need to know about malignant melanoma. It could save your life.

By Christie Aschwanden
(Photo: iStockphoto.com)
Within the next few weeks, Suessen had surgeries to remove both the melanoma tumor and the adjoining lymph nodes."There is no proven way to prevent melanoma, so early detection is key," says Kaufman. In fact, despite continually rising incidence rates of melanoma, survival rates are also increasing. "It’s not the treatments that are improving," says Marianne Berwick, PhD, head of epidemiology and cancer prevention at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, "but it’s the fact that we’re catching the disease earlier."After surgery, Suessen’s doctor recommended a year of interferon alpha injections. Her fast-paced job as a software trainer took a beating; the interferon made her feel constantly foggy and hampered her ability to think quickly on her feet. And that was on top of the other side effects: severe fatigue, nausea and vomiting, weight loss, and thinning hair.While her employer was understanding during Suessen’s treatment, she endured the experience largely on her own. She lives alone, and at the time of her diagnosis, she was helping to care for her elderly parents. She shielded them from the worst of her condition. Suessen also discovered that some of her friends just did not understand what she was going through. "People are like, ‘Oh, yeah, I had skin cancer, too. I had something removed right here,’" she says. Few of them realized that the disease was endangering her life, and she wasn’t comfortable confronting them with this fact. "Some people don’t realize how serious melanoma is. They think you can just lop it off and you’ll be fine," says Casey Culbertson. Melanoma patients often don’t receive the support and acknowledgment that women with, say, breast cancer receive. With vastly more patients to serve, there are dozens of well-funded organizations dedicated to breast-cancer advocacy, education, and research, says Culbertson, while there are only a few (not nearly as well-funded) groups with the same mission for melanoma patients and their families.The bottom line is that, despite constant health warnings and pervasive sun-safety campaigns, public awareness about the true dangers of malignant melanoma still hasn’t taken hold. What would it take? For better or worse, it seems as if every disease, no matter how rare, has a celebrity spokesperson or an attention-getting fund-raiser or a color-coded accessory attached to it. Until melanoma gets the same attention, it’s likely to continue to be underestimated and misunderstood. And that could be a deadly mistake. How to Spot ItFollow the ABCD rule for detecting skin cancer, which points to four signs that a skin lesion may be malignant:
  • A: It is asymmetrical. Draw an imaginary line through the middle of the mole, either vertically or horizontally. Are the two halves nearly the same size and shape? If not, get it checked by your dermatologist.
  • B: It has an irregular border. The edge or border of a melanoma is usually irregular. The border can be scalloped, ragged, notched, blurred, or poorly defined.
  • C: Its color is mottled or changing. Benign moles can be any color, but each mole will be only one color. Melanomas usually vary in shades within the same mole — from tan to brown to black or even blue.
  • D: It has a diameter larger than the size of a pencil eraser. Be on the lookout for moles that are different from the others, one that changes, grows, itches, or bleeds. One of the most important warning signs is actually a new or changing lesion, says Martin A. Weinstock, MD, chair of the American Cancer Society’s skin-cancer advisory group. Some experts even advocate adding an E, for evolving, to the ABCD rule.

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