Skin cancer is the most common cancer. But when diagnosed and treated early, it is also the easiest to cure. Melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, has a five-year survival rate of 98 percent when detected and treated at an early stage. That survival rate drops to 63 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes and 17 percent when it spreads to other organs.
“Anyone can get skin cancer, so everyone should know the warning signs,” said board-certified dermatologist Susan Touma, MD, of Huntington Dermatology Inc. “Early detection can be a matter of life and death.”
Dr. Touma said the early detection of skin cancer starts with three things: knowing your risk, knowing the warning signs and knowing when to see a dermatologist.
1. Know your risk.
Do you have fair skin, blue eyes, light hair or a history of sunburns? If so, you’re at an increased risk for developing skin cancer. Other risk factors include having more than 50 moles, a history of atypical moles or a weakened immune system—or, of course, spending time in the sun or tanning bed.
“Using the tanning bed one time increases your risk for melanoma by 20 percent,” Dr. Touma said. “Just one time—that’s significant.”
A family history of skin cancer and certain other cancers can also put you at a higher risk, she said. Genetic testing can determine whether you carry the genetic mutation that plays a role in developing skin cancer.
“If a parent or sibling has had skin cancer, or if you yourself have had skin cancer, your risk for the disease is going to be higher,” Dr. Touma said. “There’s also a genetic link between melanoma and a family history of pancreatic cancer. We pay close attention to patients with dysplastic nevi—large, flat, irregular moles that are often found in melanoma-prone families.”
She said the dangers of UV exposure should be taken seriously at every age.
“When you’re young and you’re at the pool or the beach, you never think you could be diagnosed with skin cancer one day,” she said. “But that’s when it’s most important to think about the health of your skin. Skin damage from ultraviolet light accumulates over time, and the sun exposure you experienced as a child and young adult plays a big role in increasing your risk for melanoma.”
2. Know the signs.
Take the time to know your skin.
“With a full-sized mirror and hand-held mirror, you can see every single part of your body,” Dr. Touma said, noting that melanomas on the head and neck are especially aggressive. “Ask your hairstylist to check your scalp for moles at each visit, and don’t be afraid to ask family members for help.”
About once a month, men and women should check their skin for the following:
- A skin growth that increases in size or appears multicolored
- A mole or other spot that changes in color, size, thickness or texture
- A mole or other spot that is irregular in outline or bigger in diameter than a pencil eraser
- An open sore that continues to itch, hurt, crust or bleed for three or more weeks
“We tell women all the time that they should perform breast self-exams once a month, but skin self-exams are just as important,” Dr. Touma said. “I tell my female patients to do both self-exams on the same day each month.”
She said moles don’t normally develop after the age of 40, so any new moles that appear after that age should be monitored closely.
“Get to know your moles,” she said. “Nobody knows your moles like you do.”
3. Know when to see a doctor.
Dr. Touma recommends a yearly skin screening with a dermatologist, but she said no one should hesitate to schedule additional appointments to address other concerns.
“Patients say to me all the time, ‘I don’t want to waste your time, but there’s this spot that has me worried.’ And my answer is always, ‘It’s never, ever a waste of my time,’” Dr. Touma said. “Don’t let the fear of wasting a doctor’s time, or wasting your own time, get in the way of checking for skin cancer. Lesions can develop and change quickly, so if you ever have a concern, call your dermatologist right away.”
Hospitals often offer free skin cancer screenings at health fairs, especially during Skin Cancer Awareness Month each May. Dr. Touma and other dermatologists check for potential skin cancers at these events and raise awareness about the disease. She said everyone should take advantage of screening opportunities.
“Many people believe that cancer located on the skin won’t directly involve their other organs,” Dr. Touma said. “But the skin is the largest organ in the body. Think about how likely it is that a cancer on your largest organ will spread to the rest of your body.”
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point, and someone dies of melanoma every 52 minutes. Keep from becoming a skin cancer statistic by knowing the keys to early detection.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Touma, call Huntington Dermatology at 304.523.5100.
The ABCs of Melanoma
When checking your moles for possible melanoma, look for these warning signs:
A for asymmetry: The two halves of the mole do not match.
B for border irregularity: The borders of the mole are fuzzy and irregular.
C for color variegation: In addition to brown or black, other colors are present.
D for diameter: The size of the mole is bigger than the size of a pencil eraser, about one-fourth of an inch.
E for evolving: The mole has changed in size, shape or color.