Did you know that melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults
aged 25 to 29, and the risk of developing melanoma increases drastically
in individuals who have been sunburned as few as four times?
“A lot of young people are obsessed with maintaining that golden
summer glow, but while that tan may be beautiful on the outside, it may
be doing all sorts of horrible things to your skin cells,” says
Blanca Bisuna, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at
Mission Heritage Medical Group. “Over exposure to UV rays from the sun and in tanning beds are
the most common contributors to developing skin cancers such as melanoma.”
According to statistics, more than 5.4 million cases of skin cancer are
treated each year. Although these numbers are high, only 1 percent of
these cases will be diagnosed as melanoma. “It's a common misconception
that skin cancer is something that happens over time, but this isn't
necessarily true. Sunburn caused by over exposure to the sun damage cells
in the skin, which can lead to cancer," she states. "While melanoma
is one of the rarest and most severe forms of skin cancer, most skin blemishes
are benign, which means they aren't cancerous and can easily be treated
by removing the troublesome tumors, which appear as moles.” Dr.
If detected early on, the survival rate for melanoma is very high, so if
you're concerned you may be at risk, have a look at our article on
how to recognize abnormal moles--it will help you recognize in the first
instance if there is indeed cause for concern.
Why does skin cancer happen?
Our bodies are constantly producing new skin cells. As new ones form, they
push the old ones to the surface, and they fall off. Research has shown
that we lose up to 30,000 skin cells every minute. That equates to trillions
of cells over just one day! Melanoma is what happens when something goes
wrong with the melanin producing cells in the skin, and they begin to
produce new cells at a more rapid rate than normal. It usually happens
because some of the cells have developed damage.
“Imagine filling up a sieve with flour. If you add the flour slowly,
then it gradually gets sifted through the small holes in the mesh. Our
skin is very similar, sifting the dead skin cells out as new ones are
added. However, if you start adding the flour too quickly, then the sieve
gets blocked up, and you are left with a large pile of unsifted flour.
The body is the same. When an excessive amount of skin cells is produced,
the body cannot keep up. The cells begin to build up and eventually form
a mass of cancer cells,” Dr. Bisuna states.
Exactly what causes damage to these cells is unclear, but a combination
of environmental factors, such as over exposure to sunlight and genetics,
have been linked to the increasing number of cases.
Am I at risk?
If you have fair skin, you are at a higher risk of developing melanoma
due to excessive sun exposure. A lighter complexion indicates that your
body does not produce much melanin. Melanin acts as a barrier to protect
your skin from UV damage. However, just because you may have darker skin,
doesn’t mean you are not at risk. “Applying sunscreen to your
face, arms and any areas of your body regularly exposed to sunlight should
be an important part of your morning routine,” suggests Dr. Bisuna.
Limiting your exposure to direct sunlight is also a great way to reduce
The risk of developing melanoma also increases if someone in your immediate
family--mother, father, grandparent or sibling--has been diagnosed with
the condition. Living in hot countries that are closer to the equator,
and having more than 50 moles on your skin, although they may just be
ordinary moles, also indicates that your risk of developing the condition
is higher. “If you find a mole on your body that looks irregular,
that is, it is not a perfect circle or doesn’t have smooth lines,
then you should see a dermatologist right away,” Dr. Bisuna says.
Dermatologists are specially trained to recognize abnormalities on the
skin and are often able to discern whether or not a mole is a melanoma
by just examining the skin.
What happens next if I have melanoma?
If your dermatologist examines your skin and is concerned that the blemishes
may be cancerous, they will want to perform a biopsy of the mole, or remove
it completely for further examination. If they decide to remove it, they
may also remove some of the skin around it too, to ensure they get rid
of any excess that might be lingering below the surface.
If the biopsy reveals melanoma is present, then your doctor will first
measure the thickness of the melanoma using a special measuring device
and a microscope. The size will determine what treatment options would be best.
Treatment of early stage melanoma is fairly straight forward, and requires
the removal of all of the tumors. A very thin or small melanoma can be
easily removed with a simple biopsy procedure. Larger melanomas may need
surgery to remove not only the tumor itself but also, a border of the
flesh around it.
If cancer has spread to your lymph nodes or other parts of your body, then
a variety of other treatment options such as chemotherapy and radiation
therapy will be discussed.
If you have any blemishes or moles on your skin that have changed over
time, suddenly appeared or seem irregular in any way, then you should
contact your dermatologist as soon as possible. Although it is one of
the rarest forms of skin cancer, the key with melanoma is to catch it
before it spreads. If found early enough, treatment by removal is highly
effective and you can go on to live a full, healthy, life.
“The best way to prevent skin cancer from developing is to avoid
excess sun exposure. And when you do go out in the sun, don’t forget
the sunscreen!” Dr. Bisuna concludes.
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