While enjoying one of Long Island’s great pleasures — sunning myself at the beach — my good friend Greg ruined everything by telling me, “Hey, Steve, that mole on your neck needs to be checked.” Eventually, I did get around to having it examined and it’s a good thing I did: It was a melanoma, the deadliest of all skin cancers.
Certain skin cells produce a pigment that gives the skin its color. Sometimes these cells start multiplying uncontrollably and develop into a type of cancer known as malignant melanoma (often simply called melanoma.)
Melanomas result in thousands of deaths each year, and the problem is getting worse. People with fair skin who burn easily are at increased risk, but regardless of your skin type you can develop a melanoma. Although the risk increases with age, melanoma is one of the most common cancers of young adults.
It is impossible to tell for certain if a mole is a melanoma just by inspection. Be on the lookout for the ABCDEs of melanoma: A = asymmetry (different parts of the mole look different), B = irregular borders, C = different colors, D = diameter (usually greater than the size of the eraser on your pencil), and E = evolving or changing in shape, size or color.
Any suspicious mole should be brought to the attention of a dermatologist. When diagnosed early, most melanomas can be removed with little or no chance of recurrence. However, if it has already spread, then surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy may be needed.
Most melanomas are due to exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Steps to minimize problems with melanoma include: Checking your skin regularly, avoiding indoor tanning, wearing dark clothes and hats with large brims when outdoors, avoiding the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and possibly routine screening by a dermatologist.
And use sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen. It should be potent (SPF of at least 15, some say 30), and have broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) coverage. All exposed areas of your body need to be covered with a generous amount, and it should be reapplied every two hours, especially if you are swimming or perspiring. Most people do not use nearly enough, and are not getting anywhere the amount of protection they need.
Take precautions now; unlike me you may not be lucky enough to have a friend who is going to make the diagnosis for you while you’re at the beach.
Dr. Stephen Picca of Massapequa is Board Certified in both Internal Medicine and Anesthesiology. He is retired from practice. Questions and comments can be sent to Dr. Picca at firstname.lastname@example.org.