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What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer

DrSugar Schools Us on Skin Cancer

DrSugar is in the house! This week she's schooling us on skin cancer.

Given that summertime is right around the corner and with warmer weather blessing a good part of the country, I figured it was a good time to share some knowledge about how to recognize skin cancers and how to prevent them.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and is now the most common cancer among people 25-29 years old. Anyone can get melanoma and it can develop anywhere on one's body. Most often, however, according to the Mayo Clinic, it develops in areas that have had exposure to the sun, such as your back, legs, arms, and face. It can grow on areas where there is less exposure to the sun, such as the soles of the feet, palms of the hands, eyes, and fingernail beds.

Learn the signs of melanoma.

The most common and early signs of melanoma are a growing, nonuniform, or unusual-looking mole on your skin. In the early stages, melanoma will not cause any symptoms; however, the melanoma can sometimes itch, bleed, or feel painful. Melanoma does not necessarily begin as a mole, either. It can occur on otherwise normal-appearing skin.


Characteristics of unusual moles or growths that may indicate melanoma or other skin cancer follow the A-B-C-D-E guide developed by the American Academy of Dermatology.

  • A is for asymmetrical shape. Look for moles with irregular shapes. One-half of the mole looks different than the other half.
  • B is for irregular border. Look for moles with irregular, notched, or scalloping borders.
  • C is for changes in color. Look for growths that have many colors or uneven distributions of color. The growths can have varied shades including tan, brown, or black, and can even have white, red, or blue.
  • D is for diameter. Melanomas are often bigger than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, but they can be smaller.
  • E is for evolving. This means a mole or growth looks different than the rest or is changing in size, shape or color. Moles can also evolve to develop new signs and symptoms such as itchiness or bleeding.

Risk factors for melanoma include having fair skin (with light-colored hair and eyes, who freckles or sunburns easily), a history of sunburn, excessive ultraviolet light exposure, living at a higher elevation or closer to the equator, having many moles or unusual moles, a family history of melanoma, or a weakened immune system.

Diagnosis of melanoma can be done by a dermatologist, who will inspect and examine your skin, moles, and other suspicious spots/lesions. If the dermatologist finds a mole or another spot that looks suspicious, he will remove it (or part of it) and it will be sent to a lab for testing. This is called a biopsy, and melanoma cannot be diagnosed without this test. Treatment and outcome of melanoma depend on how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin and whether or not the melanoma has spread to other sites in the body (metastasized). Treatment can include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy depending on the stage of melanoma one is found to have. If melanoma is not found early and has spread to other locations in the body (metastasized), melanoma can be deadly.

Prevention can help everyone reduce their risk of getting melanoma. Preventative steps include avoiding midday sun, wearing sunscreen year-round, wearing protective clothing, avoiding tanning beds, and becoming familiar with your skin (so you'll notice changes).

Now, on a personal note, I am a fair-skinned, light-haired and eyed, easily freckled and sunburned individual who has regular visits to a dermatologist given some scary-looking moles. None of them turned out to be melanoma, but they were found to have precancerous cell changes. This experience scared me enough to change my ways — I stopped going to tanning beds in the wintertime, I stopped tanning in the sun during the warmer months, and I now wear sunscreen on my exposed areas of skin daily. Perhaps I'm being a little over-careful, but given that melanoma is a seriously dangerous cancer if it spreads and is not caught early, I'd rather be safe than sorry!

Have a question for DrSugar? You can send it to me via private message here, and I will forward it to the good doctor.

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

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