By: Dr. Michael Meshad
One of the most significant lessons I’ve learned during my years as an oncologist, is that the battle against cancer is everyone’s fight. To win requires a combined effort between medical professionals and our local community. As researchers, physicians, pharmacists and others in the healthcare industry spend countless hours focusing on the science behind the disease, each member of our community can play a key role in the cancer fight by making choices that help prevent the disease or detect it earlier.
With summer upon us, let’s talk about skin cancer. This year, it’s estimated that more than 3 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with skin cancer. Over 91,000 of those people will have melanoma, the most serious type of the disease that can spread to other parts of the body.
For many types of cancer, including skin cancer, we know that certain risk factors increase the likelihood of getting the disease. Because of years of research, we know that too much exposure to the UV rays from the sun or other sources, such as tanning lamps, are harmful to melanocytes, the cells in a person’s skin that produce a brown pigment called melanin. When melanocytes undergo significant damage from too much exposure to UV rays, especially enough to cause blistering or peeling sunburns during childhood, the cells are no longer able to control their own growth and continue to multiply at a fast rate. This can cause a melanoma, or malignant tumor, to develop.
In addition to too much exposure to sunlight, there are other factors that make a person more susceptible to developing a melanoma, including having blonde or red hair, blue eyes, fair skin or having a blood relative with the disease. People with more than 100 normal moles or many unusual moles also have an increased risk.
While we can’t change the way we look or who our relatives are, we can reduce our risk of melanoma by protecting our skin from ultraviolet rays. Wearing plenty of sunscreen, avoiding sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun is brightest, seeking shade and covering up with protective clothing are all important precautions to take.
We can also increase our chance of beating the disease by detecting it early, when there is a greater likelihood of a cure. We should all be aware of how our skin normally looks and examine our skin regularly from head to toe using the “ABCD” criteria. “A” is for asymmetry- if one side does not look like the other, the mole is asymmetrical and should be checked by a professional. “B” is for border irregularity- be aware of moles with jagged, irregular borders. “C” is for color variation- different colors in the same lesion can be a sign of an abnormality. “D” is for diameter- lesions larger than a head of a pencil eraser are more concerning. Using these criteria, we should see a physician or dermatologist if we notice any changes.
Thankfully, we have come a long way in the treatment of skin cancer, and today, there are many options that offer hope to patients and their families. But the war will not be won through science alone. The best defense against the disease is to prevent it and detect it early. On behalf of myself and the staff at Southern Cancer Center, we wish everyone an enjoyable, but skin-safe summer!