For many of us, May is the month when we can finally put out our patio furniture, go biking or hiking, and dust off the beach gear -- summer is coming, and we are all too happy to get outside and enjoy the long-awaited sunshine. But for all of us, May is also Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, a time also to spread the word about this potentially deadly form of skin cancer and how we can prevent it.
The most effective ways to prevent melanoma are to be aware of your risk and be responsible about sun exposure. You are at increased risk and should take extra protections if you are light-skinned, have red or blonde hair and light eyes, skin that freckles, certain types or a large number of moles, have ever been sunburned, or had a family member with melanoma. However, even if you don't have any of these risk factors, you can still get skin cancer. Encourage and model safe habits among your family and community, such as the proper use of sunscreen and limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun.
The National Cancer Institute offers guidance for regular self-exams. You could be the first person to notice a new lesion your skin. Be aware of:
• a new mole (that looks different from your other moles)
• a new red or darker color flaky patch that may be a little raised
• a change in the size, shape, color, or feel of a mole
• a sore that doesn't heal
If you notice these changes, consult your doctor. Once it has advanced, melanoma is much harder to treat and can result in suffering and death. Some people find it helpful to take pictures of moles or suspect areas of their skin, so that they have a reference point for observing any new changes.
I began my medical career as a skin oncologist and have witnessed first-hand the preventable suffering and preventable death that can be wrought by melanoma. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Melanoma, the third most common form of skin cancer (behind basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas), is responsible for most skin cancer deaths, with more than 9,000 people dying each year. Melanoma is one of the most common types of cancer among U.S. adolescents and young adults. Unlike almost all other kinds of cancer, melanoma rates are climbing -- they are now more than six times higher among young adults than they were 40 years ago. Fortunately, skin cancers, including melanoma, are almost always preventable.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the most common cause of melanoma, usually due to overexposure to the sun. High levels of UV radiation can also come from indoor tanning devices or sun lamps products -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's social media initiative The Burning Truth underscores that controlled tanning is not safe tanning. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration proposed to increase the risk level classification of these devices due to the known associated dangers, a proposal that would require labeling to help consumers better understand the risks of exposure to UV light.
During this month, you can help spread the word about melanoma detection and prevention. Join together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and countless other organizations to recognize "Don't Fry Day" on the Friday before Memorial Day, May 23. Download and print stickers to share at your outdoor community events that weekend, and encourage your family and friends to Slip! Slop! Slap! and Wrap! when you're outdoors: Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, slap on a hat, and wrap on sunglasses to protect yourself from damaging UV radiation.
Let's use this awareness month to protect those we care about.
Follow Dr. Howard K. Koh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@HHS_DrKoh