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Melanoma: a Growing but Preventable Problem

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Foot scar from melanoma

Melanoma: a Growing but Preventable Problem

June 10, 2010

By Hillary Hoffman for Scars1

It all started when Brittany Lietz wanted a nice tan to go with the white dress she’d bought for her high school prom.  The teen started visiting indoor tanning salons and soon became addicted to tanning.  After years of tanning two or more times per week, Brittany noticed that a mole she’d had since childhood had substantially grown in size.  A visit to the dermatologist confirmed that Brittany was suffering from Stage 2 melanoma

Take Action

How can you protect yourself from skin cancer?

  • Avoid indoor tanning beds and excessive outdoor tanning.
  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 and UVA/UVB protection and reapply every two hours.  Check out these recommendations from the American Academy of Dermatology.
  • Wear protective clothing and seek shade when appropriate.
  • Get your daily vitamin D from fortified foods and supplements.
  • Check your skin frequently for new or changing moles and have suspicious growths investigated by a dermatologist.  See directions for how to perform a self-check here.
  • Although melanoma accounts for less than 5 % of skin cancers (basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common), it is by far the deadliest.  Furthermore, according to the American Cancer Society, the incidence of melanoma in the US has been increasing dramatically for the past 30 years. If caught early enough, the cancer can usually be eliminated by surgical removal of the affected area and a portion of the surrounding skin, though people who have had melanoma are significantly more likely to develop new malignant growths in the future.  The surgery leaves a scar, and for particularly large growths, skin grafts can be used to reduce scarring.    

    Removal of Brittany Lietz’s initial cancerous mole left her with a huge surgical scar across her back.  She’s since endured more than two dozen additional surgeries to remove suspicious moles.  Undeterred by her scars, Lietz competed for and won the title of Miss Maryland in 2006 and became a vocal proponent of early detection and prevention of skin cancer.  While Ms. Lietz made use of cosmetics to cover her scars during the swimsuit competition, she told the Washington Times, “Those scars are a part of me, and they're not going to go away, and I don't want them to go away because I want to remind people of what I've gone through and what I have to say.”

    Brittany’s not alone in her quest to spread the word about skin cancer.  Melanoma has made a mark in the news in recent years with stories about John McCain’s facial scars, the result of melanoma surgeries, and the death of Maureen Reagan, whose melanoma spread from her skin to her bones and liver.  Organizations like the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention and Major League Baseball’s Play Sun Smart campaign work to educate the public about this largely preventable disease. 

    The link between tanning beds and skin cancer is now firmly established, and people are urged to avoid indoor tanning at all costs.  Fair skinned people with blue or green eyes and blond or red hair are at increased risk for developing melanoma, and scientists have found that there is a genetic component as well.  Earlier this month, scientists from the UK publicized discovery of a novel genetic mutation that could trigger melanoma.  Another recent study published by researchers at the University of Cincinnati highlights an additional genetic marker for melanoma development. Such studies could lead to techniques that allow doctors to access a patient’s risk and design personalized prevention programs.

    This summer, take care of your skin by carefully monitoring your sun exposure and applying sunscreen generously.  Children in particular should always wear sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher.  According to the Cleveland Clinic, lifetime incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers could be reduced by 78% if a child wears sunscreen regularly for the first 18 years of life.  In addition, be vigilant about checking your skin for new or changing moles.  In the US, one person dies of melanoma every hour, but with early detection the disease is treatable and has a five-year survival rate of 99%. By taking reasonable precautions and being vigilant about your skin, you can enjoy the summer sun responsibly.

    Discuss sun damage in the forums

    Discuss surgical scars in the forums

    Additional Resources

    Learn how to tell the difference between melanoma and an ordinary mole

    Read about Brittany Lietz in the Washington Times

    Read the National Cancer Institute’s informational booklet about melanoma

    Read about melanoma on the Cleveland Clinic’s website

    Photo credit (foot scar after melanoma excision and skin graft): stevendepolo via Flickr

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