May 19, 2004 | By: Ellen Brightwell

Preventive measures significantly reduce the risk of melanoma, the most common and deadly form of skin cancer. Early detection, diagnosis and treatment deter potential fatalities, largely from the spread of melanoma.

“This disease is largely preventable when people reduce exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays by using protective behaviors and practices. Yet at least 50 percent of children and adults do not adequately protect themselves from UV rays,” said Vivian Lasley-Bibbs, Extension specialist for health at Kentucky State University.

“To help prevent melanoma, people of all ages need to stay out of the sun during peak hours and avoid tanning beds or sun lamps,” she said. “If you must be outdoors, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, use sun and lip screen and seek shade whenever possible.”

.Melanoma is projected to be the most common type of cancer in the United States in less than 20 years. The number of new diagnoses in the United States has more than doubled in the past 30 years, increasing from 5.7 to 14.3 per 100,000 people, according to the American Cancer Society. The ACS estimates some 55,000 new melanoma cases will be diagnosed this year, with nearly 8,000 deaths. Melanoma accounts for about 75 percent of skin-cancer deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Kentucky, the incidence of melanoma increased 19.4 percent from 1997 to 2001, according to the Kentucky Cancer Registry. From 1996 to 2000, there was a 15.7-percent increase in melanoma mortalities, according to the KCR.

Melanoma comprises the smallest percentage of skin cancers. However melanoma causes the highest number of deaths because it can spread to nearly every organ and tissue of the body. Other skin cancers typically do not spread in this manner.

“Although people are exposed to the sun’s UV rays all year long, even on cloudy and hazy days, avoidance is especially important in late spring and early summer between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when these rays are strongest and most hazardous.” Lasley-Bibbs said. “UV rays from artificial light sources such as tanning beds and sun lamps are just as dangerous as the sun’s and also should be avoided.”

An individual’s risk of melanoma is associated with the intensity of sunlight exposure over a lifetime, according to a National Cancer Institute study. Researchers concluded that a 10-percent increase in the average annual intensity of sun exposure is associated with a 19-percent increase in an individual’s risk for melanoma in men at any age, and a 16-percent increase in women.

“The results of this study and others reveal why it is so important for adults and children to develop good, lifelong habits to protect themselves from skin-damaging sun exposure,” Lasley-Bibbs said.

Wearing protective clothing and sunglasses prevents excessive sun exposure. The best protection is loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants made from a tightly woven fabric. Dark colors may provide more protection than lighter ones.

Wearing a hat also helps shield skin from the sun’s UV rays. Choose one with at least a four-inch brim to shade the face, ears and back of the neck. A tightly woven fabric such as canvas provides the most protection.

Sunglasses that screen out both UVA and UVB rays protect the eyes and delicate surrounding skin. Wrap-around sunglasses work best because they keep rays from coming in at the side of the face.

“If you can’t wear protective clothing, boost your protection by frequently seeking shade during breaks and meals, and always wearing sun and lip screen with a Sun Protection Factor of at least 15,” she said. 

The higher the SPF number, the more effective protection from excessive sun exposure. For example, a SPF of 12 to 29 provides moderate sunburn protection; a SPF of 30 or higher provides the most protection. Always read and follow the manufacturer’s directions to reapply sun and lip screen. 

Frequent reapplication is especially important during peak sun hours and after swimming or sweating. Check the sun screen’s expiration date. Products without an expiration date have a maximum three-year shelf life. Exposure to extreme temperatures may shorten a sun screen’s expiration date or shelf life.

“Do not use sun screen to extend the duration of your sun exposure or as the sole means to prevent skin cancer. It is important to combine sun screen use with other protective behaviors and practices such as avoiding UV rays, wearing protective clothing and sunglasses, and seeking shade whenever possible,” Lasley-Bibbs said.

“Some people are at greater risk for melanoma than others,” she added. Higher-risk factors include a personal or family history of skin cancer, weakened immune system, constant sun exposure in work or play, a history of sunburns early in life, skin that easily burns, freckles, or becomes read or painful in the sun, and a large number of atypical moles. People with fair skin, blue or green eyes and blond or red hair also have a higher risk of melanoma.”

Apart from prevention, the best chance to cure melanoma is to detect, diagnose and treat it in the early stages, according to Lasley-Bibbs.

“Although melanoma is the most common cancer among people 25 to 29 years old, your likelihood of developing it increases between 40 and 60 years. If you are concerned about melanoma, talk with your doctor about symptoms, skin self-exams and a checkup schedule based on your medical history and other risk factors,” she said.

The ACS recommends people over 18 years do a monthly self-exam.

“The best time to do a skin self-exam is after a shower or bath,” Lasley-Bibbs added. “Check yourself from head to toe in a well-lighted area using full-length and hand-held mirrors. Be sure to inspect all areas including the back, scalp, between the buttocks and the genital area. Look for a new mole that looks abnormal, change in the size, shape, color or texture of a mole, or sore that does not heal. If you notice any of these symptoms, immediately contact your doctor; do not wait until your next check-up.”

People ages 20 to 40 should have a medical skin examination every three years; those older than 40 need an annual examination. People with melanoma risk factors may require more frequent exams, according to ACS recommendations.

Surgery to remove the suspicious area, followed by pathologists’ analyses is the only method to accurately diagnose melanoma. Removing the cancer is standard treatment for a melanoma that has not metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body. If the cancer has spread, treatments may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, biological or experimental therapies or a combination of these.

For more information visit the KCR web site or the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s Health Education Through Extension Leadership site


Writer: Ellen Brightwell 859-257-4736 ext. 257
Source: Vivian Lasley-Bibbs 502-597-6799