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Melanoma is Always a Risk – Even in Winter
Updated January 16, 2020
Now that summer is over you can put away your bathing suit, floppy hat and sunscreen—right?
Not so fast with the sunscreen. The sun hasn’t packed its bags and left town. Even on gray days when the sun is hiding behind clouds, its rays can still find you. And that means you’re still at risk for melanoma, according to Jeffrey M. Farma surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.
“Of the three main types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most dangerous,” Farma said. “It’s a skin cancer that arises in the cells that make your skin’s melanin. If these cells become atypical, they can progress to an invasive cancer. What look like small lesions can spread both regionally to lymph nodes or even metastasize to other organs in the body.”
The most common cause of melanoma is skin damage from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and tanning beds.
“Right now we’re seeing an uptick in melanoma in two populations,” Farma said. “One is the older population who weren’t educated about melanoma and who were slathering themselves with baby oil to tan and then got blistering sunburns. And we’re also seeing an increase in young women in their teens and 20s who are likely using tanning salons.”
“Tanning is obviously ubiquitous in our society,” he added, “but it can be very dangerous.”
Know your ABCDEs
To spot a melanoma, Farma suggested using the first five letters of the alphabet when looking at any of your moles:
A – Asymmetrical. Does one side not match the other?
B – Borders. Does it have irregular or blurred borders?
C – Color. Is the color of the mole not the same all over?
D – Diameter. Is it larger than 1/4 inch across?
E – Evolving. Is a mole changing or growing? Is it itching or bleeding?
“Any of these changes would be concerning,” Farma said.
Are you at risk?
Any tan-seeking person puts their self at risk for melanoma.
You’re also at increased risk if you have red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, skin that freckles or burns easily, or a lot of moles. And although those with light skin get melanoma more often, people with dark skin are at risk too.
How to protect your skin
First, pick a good sunscreen. The label should say it provides broad-spectrum protection and an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30, Farma said. When outdoors in any season—UV rays reflect off snow, sand and water—cover all exposed skin with sunscreen, and reapply every two to three hours.
“You don’t want to tan,” Farma said. “That’s the most important thing.
Secondly, get to know your moles.
“That way, if you get a new mole or any of them are changing, you can bring it to your doctor’s attention to be evaluated,” he added. “I recommend general skin screening every year or two, especially for someone who has multiple moles. The earlier we identify a problem, the easier it is to treat. That’s why screening is so crucial.”
During a skin exam, your primary care provider will check your skin for moles, birthmarks or other pigmented areas that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture. If your provider finds something that looks suspicious, he or she may refer you to a dermatologist.
Talk to your primary care provider about having your skin checked. Remember, when found early, melanoma is highly treatable.