Editor's note: A version of this article ran in May 2011 in Steamboat Today.
Take five minutes to read this article. Education about melanoma leads to early detection and prevention, so keep your eyes focused here and scan the happy hour ads later.
Early detection of melanoma is a key factor in improving patient survival. Preventing melanoma would be even better.
Monday Medical columns publish weekly in the Steamboat Today's Yampa Valley Health section. Read more columns here.
Asymmetry: Half the lesion does not match the other half
Border irregularity: Edges are notched, blurred, etc.
Color variation: Pigment is not uniform; more than one color
Diameter: Greater than 6 mm
Ugly duckling: Lesion looks different from the rest
Two-thirds of melanomas are detected by the patient and only a third by a doctor. You can’t say that about colon, lung or prostate cancer.
Melanomas are almost always visible. You have the opportunity to look at your skin more often than anyone else, so learn what to look for. Studies have shown that individuals who review the ABCDE(U) criteria and who review photos of melanomas are better able to detect melanomas.
Skin screening by a health care provider is associated with detection of thinner (more treatable) melanomas. Individuals with risk factors for melanoma should be screened. Risk factors include:
• Personal history of melanoma
• Family history of melanoma
• Numerous moles
• History of atypical moles
• Fair skin, red hair and blue eyes
• Indoor tanning
• History of severe sunburns
Most screening involves visual detection and, sometimes, serial photographic documentation to detect changes throughout time. There are newer techniques such as dermoscopy that may improve accuracy of detecting melanomas.
For prevention, you have two goals — choose your parents well and keep ultraviolet light off your skin.
• Avoid sun tanning and tanning beds.
• Generously apply a broad spectrum sunscreen daily to skin with an SPF of 30 or higher. Look for zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or Heliolpex in the active ingredients.
• Reapply every two to four hours and after swimming or sweating. Be lavish in your application, or the benefit will be diminished.
• Wear protective clothing with UPF 30+ fabric, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
• Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (OK, this one’s not realistic.)
• Use extra caution near reflective surfaces such as water, snow and sand.
• Tint glass windows to provide protection, especially if you spend a lot of time in the car.
• Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet (including eggs and fish) and/or supplements. Don’t bake with the excuse of needing your sunshine vitamin.
• Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If something looks suspicious or you’re at high risk, get screened.
Melanoma is one of a handful of cancers where the incidence continues to increase. Prevention and early detection can improve the frequency and survival rate associated with melanoma.
Our goal is to encourage local residents to protect themselves against this disease and to recognize what it looks like in its earliest stages.
Maryann Wall, M.D., of Northwest Colorado Ear, Nose, Throat and Facial Plastic Surgery PC, is board-certified in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery and facial plastic and reconstructive surgery.