Learn the Signs of Melanoma
I learned from Gillian at Just Stay Curious that yesterday was Sunscreen Day. It’s also Melanoma Awareness Month. So, today’s post will focus on one of the reasons sunscreen is important: helping reduce the risk of melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. I was diagnosed with melanoma when I was 20. I only knew to have my changing mole checked because a family member once had melanoma, and I had some idea what the signs were. Without that knowledge, I don’t think I’d be here today.
At that time, the symptoms of possible malignant melanoma were limited to Asymmetrical, Border irregularity, uneven or changing Color, and an increase in Diameter. E was added later, which stands either for Elevated or Evolving, depending on the source. At one point I also saw a suggestion to add P for persistent issues like itching and scaling. P doesn’t seem to have caught on, but most places do mention “additional symptoms” to look for which include those, so I’ve added it to the list.
My Experience With Melanoma
In my case, a mole I’d had for awhile on my right calf increased in size and got darker in color. I knew those were signs of possible melanoma, so I went to my primary care doctor. Although I told her there was a family history of melanoma, she just told me to watch the mole and come back in about a month.
Since she didn’t seem worried and school was hectic, I ended up putting it off a little longer than that, finally going in about two months later. By then, in addition to being bigger and darker, the mole had started to itch and have sort of a white scale to it. These were all more signs of melanoma, though I didn’t know itchiness and scaliness were symptoms at the time.
During the followup appointment, the doctor measured the mole for the first time. It was 8mm, and even a few millimeters less would have been cause for concern. She biopsied the mole for testing though she still didn’t seem too concerned. I was not surprised when I got a call two days later informing me that I had melanoma. An appointment had already been made for me to see a dermatologist for a few days later.
At the dermatologist’s office, I was told that melanoma is a deadly skin cancer (there are other types of skin cancer which aren’t deadly). Melanoma occurs when melanocytes, or pigment cells, become malignant. For a longer but still brief explanation, you may want to watch the following video:
The dermatologist said many people with melanoma have the mole removed and that’s the end of it. In my case, the cancer had spread below the skin, though fortunately not too far below it, and thus required surgery. I had to have a centimeter in either direction of the biopsy removed. He also decided to remove a couple other moles as a precaution. Neither of those turned out to be malignant.
A few weeks later, I had the surgery, which was outpatient. I was awake for it, though he numbed the area with anesthetics injected into the site. I actually watched him perform the procedure.
The dermatologist said melanoma is most likely to recur in the first three to five years, and if it comes back in the same spot it’s almost as if it was never caught at all. That was kind of scary. For awhile I had to be screened by a dermatologist every few months, then every six months.
Lately I’m down to once a year unless I notice a new mole or changes in an existing mole, (although I did have a German dermatologist recommend sticking with every six months). Fortunately, it’s been 10 years this month since my surgery, and though I’ve lost count of the number of moles that have been removed as a precaution (knock on wood) I haven’t had a recurrence of melanoma.
Get Screened for Melanoma
Melanoma isn’t typical in young people, which is probably why my initial doctor didn’t seem concerned at first, but I’m proof it can occur. Yet even a family member was told she was too young to worry when asking for a screening at an age older than I was at diagnosis. Whether you’re related to me or not, if you ask for a screening at age 20+ and are told you’re too young to worry about melanoma, tell them you’re not because I wasn’t too young to get it at 20, and I wouldn’t be alive today had I not been screened and had the biopsy and surgery soon enough. It’s never too early, but it can be too late!
If you are an adult of any age with a new mole, or anyone of any age with a mole that meets any of the ABCDE or P symptoms above or changes in any way, I encourage you to get a skin screening. Any dermatologist can perform one and I have often seen events during which free skin screenings are offered. In the U.S., the American Academy of Dermatology offers free screenings, and you can use this handy map to find one in your area.
Reduce Your Risk of Melanoma
While we may not be able to prevent melanoma–I was told it was “when” not “if” I was going to get it due to my genetic predisposition–we can reduce our risk for getting it (or reduce a risk of recurrence). We can do this by minimizing exposure to the sun, avoiding tanning beds (which I had never and now will never use), and using high-SPF sunscreen when we are out in the sun.
Although I don’t totally avoid the sun, and even used to live in the Sunshine State, I do try not to be out too long during the “peak hours” (about 10am to 2pm or 4pm depending on whom you ask). I also wear sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher as has been recommended to me. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF of at least 30.
Finding sunscreens I like in an appropriate SPF is something of a challenge for me though. While my favorite sunscreen scent is Hawaiian Tropic, and I can wear it on most of my body, it tends to irritate my face, as do most sunscreens. I’ve even had ones made for babies or for sensitive skin cause my face to turn red within a few seconds of putting them on.
This summer, I bought two new sunscreens to try, both of which are sweat and water resistant, one for the body, and one just for the face. The body sunscreen I’ll be trying is Banana Boat Protect and Hydrate Sunscreen Lotion with Broad Spectrum SPF-50, a 2 in 1 UVA/UVB Sunscreen and All Day Moisturizer with Aloe Vera and Antioxidants. It’s labeled as fragrance free, and seems to be, which will be nice if I want to wear other scents. The color is the way it looks in the bottle, but it rubs in.
For the face, I got Aveeno Active Naturals Protect and Hydrate with Broad Spectrum SPF 50 and Nourishing Oat. Though not fragrance free, the fragrance is pretty mild. It did turn my face a little pink the first time I put it on, but it wasn’t beet-red so I’m going to keep using it for now.
What sunscreen will you be using to protect your skin this summer?