Understanding Melanoma

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Summertime means more time spent in the sun. Whether you’re vacationing, gardening, or lounging by the pool, you’re spending plenty of time soaking up some vitamin D, which means you should be spending plenty of time applying (and reapplying) sunscreen. Frequent exposure to the sun can increase your risk of developing melanoma, which can be more deadly for seniors than for younger patients. Melanoma is one of many types of skin cancer, and it is the most common type of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, it occurs when melanocytes–which are the cells that give the skin a brown pigment–begin to grow uncontrollably. While melanoma is not as common as the other types of skin cancers (such as basal cell cancer and squamous cell carcinoma), it is more dangerous because melanoma can spread to other parts of the body if not treated early enough. By taking the necessary precautions, melanoma can be resolved fairly easily or prevented altogether.

What Causes Melanoma?
There is not always a definitive way to pinpoint what causes melanoma in a person. For example, most moles on your skin are not cancerous, but some may become cancerous due to a genetic mutation that causes the mole’s cells to become melanoma cells. Sometimes melanoma is genetic, but not everyone with a history of this cancer will develop it. The most common cause of melanoma is called an “acquired gene mutation” in which outside factors cause the cancer (rather than genetics or a spontaneous mutation). In this case, a major outside factor is exposure to UV rays via sunlight or tanning beds. The American Cancer Society describes UV rays as damaging to skin cells because, when damaged, the cells can mutate and become cancer cells. It may take years for melanoma to develop after significant exposure to UV rays, which is why it’s important to have regular check-ups with a dermatologist if you think you are at risk.

What Are Some Signs of Melanoma?
According to The American Cancer Society, some warning signs include “unusual moles, sores, lumps, blemishes, markings, or changes in the way an area of the skin looks and feels.” Watch
out for new spots on your skin, or old spots that have changed in shape or color. These changes can mean the spot is asymmetrical, discolored, larger than about the size of a pencil eraser, changing in size, and has an irregular, ragged, or blurred border. The American Cancer Society lists other warning signs as: a sore that does not heal, the spread of pigment from a spot to the surrounding skin, redness or swelling around a mole, a change to the mole’s surface, and itchiness, tenderness, or pain in the area. 

How Can it Be Treated?
You can catch melanoma in its earliest stages–when it is most likely to be cured–by doing regular self-exams. If you find a spot on your skin that looks suspicious, make an appointment with a dermatologist so you can get the spot checked out. Your dermatologist will determine what to do from there. If they think the spot may be melanoma, they will do a biopsy and send it to a lab. If the spot is non-cancerous, you’re good to go. If it is cancerous, you may need to undergo treatment. Melanoma that is detected in its earliest stages can be treated with surgery and medication. For the most severe stages of melanoma (in which the cancer has attached itself to the lymph nodes and started to spread), radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or chemotherapy may be necessary. 

Can Melanoma Be Prevented?
Though there is no way to guarantee you will not have melanoma, it’s always a good idea to take preventive measures to lower your risk of developing it. The most important thing to do is to protect yourself from UV rays. Stay out of direct sunlight when possible, and make sure to wear plenty of sunscreen and reapply as directed. Don’t forget to wear a hat and sunglasses when you go out, as UV rays can be harmful to the eyes as well.

Most dermatologists recommend avoiding tanning beds because those emit UV rays, too. Instead of a tanning bed, you can purchase self-tanners in stores. Self-tanners typically come in lotion or spray form, and they are a safer alternative to suntanning or using tanning beds. However, self-tanners do not offer UV protection, so you still need to wear sunscreen on top of any self-tanner you use.

By Emily Drez

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