Enjoy the Sun Without the Risk

With more than 53,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer reported each year, it is the fastest growing cancer in the U.S. and worldwide. And even in the winter months, skin protection is still vital.

“Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer,” Dr. Jessica Wu, doctor of dermatology practicing in West Los Angeles, said. “But it is treatable if caught early.”

Melanoma usually starts in the skin, the largest organ of the body, but can also originate in the eye, digestive tract or lymph nodes. In women, melanoma usually develops in women on the lower legs, but can also be found under the fingernails or toenails.

“The good news,” Wu said, “is that you can see it and remove it in its early stages.” Therefore, it is important to get checked at least once a year by a dermatologist, Wu stated, “just like an annual physical.”

A 100 percent survival rate is reported when superficial melanoma is diagnosed early. In advanced stages, when melanoma is found in lymph nodes, survival rates drop and continue to drop as the cancer spreads to major organs. Only 4 percent of skin cancer cases are attributed to melanoma, yet it is the cause of most skin cancer deaths. There have been no significant advances for medical treatment of advanced melanoma in the last 30 years.

Those who have had frequent sunburns over the years should see their dermatologist more than once a year, Wu recommended. “You have a greater chance of developing melanoma if you have had blistering sunburns in the past, throughout your childhood,” Wu said.

Other risk factors include: moles, fair complexions, light hair or blues eyes, family history of cancer (could mean that certain gene changes are present), and medicines that suppress the immune system. If a person has already been treated for melanoma, they should be checked several times a year to catch any reoccurrence, as melanoma can return as many as 10 years after the first diagnosis. Even without these specific risk factors, melanoma can still affect everyone.
With age, melanoma odds increase, but it doesn’t necessarily discriminate between age groups, and is one of the most common cancers in young adults. The Melanoma Research Foundation states that there are currently more new cases of melanoma cases reported than of HIV/AIDS. Melanoma in women between the ages of 25 and 30 is said to be the primary cause of cancerous deaths; women age 30 to 35 count melanoma as the second cause of cancerous deaths, after breast cancer. Melanoma isn’t always preventable, but there are precautions that one can take.

This includes being aware that snow reflects sunlight, therefore the ultraviolet rays can be just as intense as the summer months. A sunscreen plus moisturizer should be used consistently. If skiing in the high-altitude mountains is a favorite activity, the rays can be 60 to 80 percent stronger, so a high SPF of 30 is necessary. Additionally, lip balm and sunglasses with UV protection should be worn in the sun for added protection.

“You can’t be a hermit and hide indoors,” Wu said. “But you can be smart.”

Additional information can be found at www.cancer.org, www.melanoma.com and www.melanoma.org.

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