Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate. It knows no age or sex and is now the most common type of cancer in the United States, with more new cases being diagnosed each year than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined.
May is National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. And, with sun worshippers preparing to hit the beach, local parks or backyards to soak up the sun’s rays, it’s a good time to raise awareness of melanoma and to encourage early detection.
“While skin cancers detected early by your primary care provider or during your own monthly self-exams of your skin from head to toe are almost always curable, your best defense is to cover up when outdoors and to stay away from tanning beds,” said Dr. Richard Arenas, chief, Surgical Oncology, Baystate Regional Cancer Program.
Melanoma is most often found in men between the shoulders and hips, and on the head and neck. Women often develop melanoma on the lower legs. Look for changes in moles – those that are larger than normal, variable in color, and have irregular borders – as well as warts and other blemishes on the skin, especially those parts exposed to the sun.
Avoid overexposure to ultraviolet light
The two most common types of skin cancer – basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas – are highly curable, but often cause disfiguration from surgery. Melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, causes the most deaths. The majority of these cancers are caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light.
Dr. Arenas and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following easy options for protection from UV radiation:
- Stay in the shade, especially during midday hours.
- Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs.
- Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade your face, head, ears and neck.
- Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block both UVA and UVB rays.
- Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher, and both UVA and UVB (broad spectrum) protection.
- Skin cancer prevention begins in childhood, noted Dr. Arenas, who reminds parents and caregivers to keep newborns out of the sun and to use sunscreen only on those over the age of six months.
Two sunburns too many
“All it takes is just a few blistering sunburns in our childhood to more than double our chances of developing a potentially-deadly melanoma later in life. In fact, for a while now we have seen many more patients, especially women, in their 20s and 30s, coming into our practice with melanoma and basal cell cancers,” said Dr. Arenas.
Surgery is the main treatment for most cases of melanoma and can often cure early-stage cancers before they metastasize and decrease the likelihood of a cure. For patients with non-melanoma skin cancer, treatment options may include surgery and several ablative – the process to remove tissue from the body – approaches, such as cryotherapy and photodynamic therapy. Chemotherapy and radiation usually are reserved for more advanced cases of skin cancers, but the recent advances in immunotherapy have the greatest promise to effectively treat advanced stage melanoma and certain other skin cancers, noted Dr. Arenas.
The Baystate oncologist added that new biologic and targeted agents can now enhance the body’s immune system providing a method of treatment that is better tolerated even in older patients. There are several ongoing clinical trials involving immunotherapy, some being conducted at Baystate’s D’Amour Center for Cancer Care. “Moving towards the future, tests are becoming available to identify the genetic profile of melanoma. This ability to understand the genetic makeup of a cancer will help to personalize treatments towards this deadly disease,” said Dr. Arenas.
For more information on the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, visit baystatehealth.org/brcp or to request an appointment or ask a question, call (413) 794-9338.