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Melanoma Monday: What you need to know

In honor of

In honor of "Melanoma Monday," Dr. Michael Shapiro, a dermatologist and American Board of Dermatology diplomat with Vanguard Dermatology in New York City, suggests simple guidelines for recognizing possible melanoma symptoms, like changing characteristics of a mole. Credit: HealthDay

Ahead of summer, and the accompanying sun burns that many of us suffer through, the Daily Apple is taking a look at a particularly severe form of skin cancer, melanoma.

In honor of “Melanoma Monday” - which is today - we spoke about the disease with Dr. Michael Shapiro, a dermatologist and American Board of Dermatology diplomat with Vanguard Dermatology in New York City.

What is melanoma skin cancer?

Melanoma skin cancer is a cancer of the pigment producing cells in the skin. These are called melanocytes. It is one of the deadliest types of skin cancer because the treatment options are poor once the cancer has spread from the skin to internal organs. The incidence of this cancer has been rising steadily over the last 20 years in the United States and around the world.

Who gets melanoma?

Melanoma occurs in people of all races and ethnicities. However, fair skinned individuals, especially those who have had significant sun exposure (and especially several blistering sunburns), are most at risk for developing melanoma.

What are the risk factors?

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Blistering sunburns and fair skin are the biggest risk factors. The amount of cumulative sun exposure is also a risk factor. Genetics also play a role. There is an infrequently seen gene mutation which increases melanoma risk. Families who pass on this gene are characterized by having multiple individuals in the family develop melanoma.

What are the symptoms of melanoma?

Symptoms of metastatic melanoma, where the cancer has spread to internal organs, is varied. Patients can present with weight loss, seizures, bleeding, etc. Symptoms of melanoma on the skin are usually absent. This is one reason why all too often melanoma is diagnosed too late. A bleeding mole should certainly warrant medical attention. A mole that has recently started to itch should also be evaluated.

What can a person do to decrease their chances of getting melanoma?

Protect oneself from excessive sun exposure and especially blistering sunburns. Use of hats and other ultraviolet light protective clothing is very helpful, as is the early and regular application of sunscreen. If you have had significant sun exposure in the past, or if you are merely fair skinned, regular visits to a dermatologist have been shown to result in earlier detection of melanomas.

Shapiro suggests remembering a simple mnemonic for knowing when a mole should be evaluated by a doctor: ABCDE.

"A" stands for asymmetry, where one part of the mole looks different than another. "B" is for border irregularity where the borders of the mole are not crisp and defined. "C" is for the different colors that a mole has witihin it. "D" is for diameter, said Shapiro, adding that unusual moles are generally larger than 5 mm. Finally, "E" is for evolution, which can include a change in any of the rest of the mnemonic's characteristics.

If you have a question or concern about a mole or spot on your body, contact your dermotologist to get it evaluated.

Have you had any experiences with melanoma? Let us know in the comments field below.

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As a public service, this article is available for all. Newsday readers support our strong local journalism by subscribing.  Please show you value this important work by becoming a subscriber now.

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