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)

If your mole "passes" any or all of these ABCDs, see a dermatologist, pronto. Don’t delay, because once a melanoma has grown to the size of a dime it has a 50 percent chance of having spread elsewhere, says Darrell Rigel, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University. Don’t let your doctor brush off a suspicious spot. If in doubt, have it taken out and insist on a biopsy, advises Kaufman. "Melanoma often arises from other moles, so removing them can be a preventative measure."If you have more than 50 moles on your body, consider having a dermatologist make a detailed "mole map." These medical photos are used to detect whether there are changes to a mole during subsequent checkups. More on Melanoma On the Horizon: Melanoma VaccinesThe current push in research is for a vaccine to teach the immune system to recognize and destroy melanoma cells, something scientists have seen happen spontaneously in a small number of patients. Dozens of different vaccines are being studied, many in clinical trials around the country, but most researchers don’t expect anything to be available to the public for at least five years. Current melanoma patients, however, can take part in the research and may be eligible for one or more trials, based on age, gender, melanoma stage, and other health factors. Ask your doctor about clinical vaccine trials, or go to www.clinicaltrials.gov for more information on trials in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health.Melanoma and Sun It would seem that avoiding melanoma means staying out of the sun at all costs, but a recent report, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute earlier this year, found that people who spent a great deal of time in the sun before their diagnosis with melanoma actually had better survival rates than those who spent less time in the sun. "Our study does not imply that people should not be concerned about excess sun exposure, but indeed a small amount of sun exposure should be okay," says study author Marianne Berwick, PhD, head of epidemiology and cancer prevention at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "The take-away message from our study is that the sun is not the only cause of melanoma. While sun safety is very important, there’s no need to be totally neurotic about it." No one is sure yet what constitutes a safe dose of sun, but a sunburn is a sure sign you’ve crossed the line. What’s also important, Berwick notes, is simple skin awareness. In her research, people who regularly noted changes in their skin’s color, texture, and markings cut their risk of getting melanoma, and dying from it, in half.Originally published in MORE magazine, July 2005.

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