By Glenn Meuche, MSW, LSW
A young client of mine, David, visited his dermatologist one day for a rash that had appeared on his chest. While his skin was being examined, David’s dermatologist noticed a suspicious mole on his upper left bicep. The mole turned out to be melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer.
Had the dermatologist not discovered David’s mole, the young man’s chances of survival would have greatly diminished. Melanoma in its advanced stages can quickly spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain, lungs, and liver.
Although melanoma is an extremely aggressive cancer, it is highly curable if detected early. Survival rates for early stage melanoma can sometimes exceed 90% to 95%. Melanoma is often visible on the skin, which can make it easier to detect than other cancers that impact internal organs.
Like many people, David had spent countless hours in the sun as a young adult, unaware that he was at risk for melanoma. This summer, and indeed all year round, it’s important to know how to protect your skin from the harmful UV rays that can cause this potentially deadly diagnosis.
- Be mindful of when the sun is at its strongest, during the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Always use sunscreen. Use a product with an SPF level of 30 or higher that protects against UV-A and UV-B rays. If you swim or are sweating, use a waterproof sunscreen and reapply often. Cover your whole body with screen, including ears, eyelids, nose, and lips.
- Avoid tanning beds. Using them before the age of 30 can heighten a person’s risk by 75%.
People who are fair skinned, freckled, and have light hair and eye color can be at greater risk. If you have a large number of moles or a history of abnormal moles, it is important to do self-examinations and to have your skin checked regularly by a dermatologist.
Here are some easy steps for checking your skin:
- Perform self-examinations regularly in front of a full-length mirror. Use a hand-held mirror to look at your back and other hard-to-see places. Also examine your head, between the toes, back of the ears, soles of feet, and undersides of the arms.
- Search for new growths on your skin and spots or sores that do not heal normally. Take note of any changes in moles, freckles, and birthmarks.
- Know the ABCDE’s of moles:
Asymmetrical – Is the mole oddly shaped?
Border – Does the mole have irregular or vaguely defined borders?
Color – Does the mole have uneven coloring or multiple colors?
Diameter – Is the mole larger than a pencil eraser or is it growing in size?
Evolution – Has the mole grown or changed in any way?
If you’ve been diagnosed with melanoma, it can be tremendously helpful to connect with others who’ve received a similar diagnosis. Organizations such as CancerCare and The Melanoma Research Foundation offer free support groups, where participants can share their experiences with melanoma and learn from each other. Also, speaking to an oncology social worker canhelp you process your experience and address challenges you may contend with in treatment and recovery.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with melanoma, visit www.cancercare.org/diagnosis/melanoma to find reliable information, emotional support, and helpful resources.
Glenn Meuche, MSW, LSW is an oncology social worker with CancerCare. Based in CancerCare’s New Jersey office, Meuche moderates support groups and provides individual counseling over the telephone and face-to-face to help people manage the emotional and practical challenges of cancer.