Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It forms in the cells that produce melanin, which is the substance responsible for your skin's color. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV rays) from the sun or tanning beds increases the risk of developing any skin cancer. In the case of melanoma, experts say there's also a strong link between family genetics and your risk of developing melanoma.
Are You at Risk for Melanoma?
If one or more of your parents, siblings, or children develop melanoma, you have a higher risk of developing melanoma than a person with no family history of the disease. Experts aren't sure whether the increased risk is because close relatives tend to have similar, sun-drenched lifestyles or if a genetic mutation is responsible. Regardless of why a family history of melanoma raises the risk of developing the disease, knowing that there's a link means you should take precautions. That can include reducing the skin cancer risk factors you can control and paying close attention to changes in your skin.
Unfortunately, everyone is at risk for melanoma, regardless of family history. However, some people with a family history of the disease never get it, and some people with no family history will get it. Fortunately, there are concrete steps you can take to reduce your melanoma risks, including:
- Applying sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher liberally 15-30 minutes before any sun exposure and reapplying every 2 hours throughout the day, after toweling, becoming sweaty or getting wet.
- Checking the expiration date of your sunscreen – do not use if it’s expired.
- Following directions for sunscreen application on babies less than 6 months old.
- Limiting your time outdoors when the sun's rays are strongest (between 10 am and 4 pm).
- Wearing protective clothing, hats and sunglasses so sunlight can't reach your skin.
- Avoiding tanning beds.
Survival Rates for Melanoma Increase with Early Detection
Melanoma is responsible for 75% of all skin cancer deaths. A person's risk of dying from melanoma increases the deeper the cancer grows. Melanomas that aren't detected early and are allowed to grow can spread to other parts of the body, and because melanoma is an aggressive cancer, it spreads quickly - usually within three to 18 months from the time it becomes noticeable.
Frequent skin exams are especially important for people with a family history of melanoma. Once a melanoma has spread to other areas, the cancer is much more difficult to treat. That's why it's so important for everyone to examine their skin and have their skin examined regularly by a doctor. These exams give you and your doctor an opportunity to spot suspicious growths on the skin early. A melanoma that is found early can be removed from the skin before it is able to spread.
Don’t Forget Your Monthly Skin Self-Exams
Examining your skin monthly allows you to become familiar with the location and appearance of your freckles, moles and other pigmented areas. Whenever you detect changes to existing marks on your body, or new growths or pigmented areas that look unusual or are growing quickly, you should have them checked out by a dermatologist. To learn more about performing skin cancer self-examinations, see our “Skin Cancer Detection Guide” blog post.
Melanoma can be deadly. Whether you have a family history of the disease or not, you're at risk. Get to know your skin so you'll know when something simply doesn't seem right, and if you notice any changes of your skin, it is best to visit your doctor or dermatologist. Compass Oncology has 5 locations in Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA - if your provider determines a referral is needed.