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Tips for understanding melanoma

Melanoma is one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer and the leading cause of death from skin disease, killing an estimated 10,000 people in the United States each year.Melanoma, Mole, Skin Cancer

Melanomas often resemble moles; some develop from moles.

If melanoma is recognized and treated early, it is almost always curable, but if it is not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal.

Here are some things to keep in mind about melanoma from Scott Albert, MD, a surgical oncologist at Upstate Medical University.

Keep track of changes to your skin, he said, mentioning the “ABCDE” guidelines commonly used to check for warning signs of possible melanoma:

  • A (asymmetry): One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.

  • B (border): The edges of a mole are irregular, ragged or blurred.

  • C (color): The color is not the same all over.

  • D (diameter): The spot is larger than ¼ inch across – about the width of a standard pencil eraser.

  • E (evolving): The mole is changing in size, shape or color.

Some melanomas do not fit these guidelines, but it‘s important to tell your doctor about any skin changes, growths that look different from your other moles, and spots that itch or bleed, he said.

Among melanoma‘s risk factors:

  • Having fair skin, although dark-skinned people can also get melanoma.

  • A family history of melanoma.

  • Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, such as sunlight or tanning lights.

“Fair-skinned patients are predisposed to sunburns,” Albert said, “and sunburns, especially blistering sunburns, put you at increased risk,” even years later.

“Evidence is becoming stronger that tanning beds do have a negative influence on people and increases their risk of skin cancer,” Albert said, but the melanoma might occur 10 or 20 years later, and it can be hard for people to see the cause-and-effect relationship.

Hear Albert's radio interview about melanoma. This article appears in the summer 2015 issue of Cancer Care magazine.