Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and the majority of deaths from skin cancer result from melanoma. This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates 106,000 new cases of melanoma, resulting in more than 7,000 deaths.
The number of people getting melanoma has increased over the years, and you’re at greater risk as you get older. However, there are some basic things you can do to reduce your risk of melanoma and other skin cancers.
With May being Skin Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a good time to take a closer look at melanoma prevention. Here, Dr. Javier Zelaya at Skinworks Dermatology, with three New York City locations, discusses how you might get melanoma and what you can do to avoid it.
What is melanoma?
Melanoma is the result when melanocytes (pigment producing cells) mutate and divide uncontrollably. Pigment cells generally develop on the skin. While melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin, it tends to affect certain areas more often than others.
For men, melanoma is more common on the chest and back; for women, it’s commonly found on the legs. For both men and women, melanoma frequently affects the face. In rare cases, you can get melanoma in odd places like your eyes and on your intestines.
The cancer occurs in five stages, which determines how you’re treated:
- Stage 0: the tumor is limited to the upper layer of skin
- Stage 1: the tumor is in the epidermis and dermis, the topmost skin layers
- Stage 2: the tumor thickens and becomes ulcerated (open sore)
- Stage 3: the tumor spreads into your lymph nodes
- Stage 4: the tumor spreads from your lymph nodes to other areas of the body
The first three stages are still localized and therefore easier to treat, but the last two stages mean the cancer has metastasized, or spread. The final stage could involve the cancer spreading to your brain, where it would be difficult to treat.
What increases the risk of melanoma?
Like most skin cancers, overexposure to the UV rays of the sun is a common risk factor of melanoma, along with sunburn. People with lighter skin have less protection from UV rays and are at greater risk.
A weakened immune system, a family history of melanoma, and just living closer to the earth’s equator or at a higher elevation (where there’s a higher concentration of sunlight) are also risk factors for this cancer.
What can you do to avoid it?
The most important thing to do to avoid getting melanoma, or most skin cancers, is to limit your exposure to direct sunlight.
If you’re outside, stay in the shade as much as possible, use sunscreen, and wear a hat and sunglasses to protect your head and face. This is especially important for your children, who spend a lot of time in the sun during the warm months.
It’s also important to avoid other sources of direct UV light, such as tanning beds and sunlamps. Both can increase your risk of getting skin cancer, with tanning beds increasing the risk for people under 35 by 75%.
It’s important to check your skin regularly for abnormal moles, as there’s a chance they may turn into skin cancer.
So, while melanoma is a serious condition, reducing the risk is in large part just common sense: Limit your time in the sun and be vigilant about changes to your skin.
If you’re worried you may have melanoma or any other skin cancer, call or use the online booking tool today to make your appointment at one of our convenient Skinworks Dermatology locations in Maspeth, Chelsea, or Park Slope.