Melanoma: Learn Your ABCDs

South Floridians love their beaches, pools and outdoor sports, especially during the spring months when the weather isn’t blazing hot yet.

But there’s a dark secret behind all that sunshine – skin cancer – and living in a subtropical climate puts us at even greater risk for the deadliest type – melanoma.

Melanoma develops when the pigmented cells of our skin, melanocytes, are damaged by repeated exposure to UV rays.  The damaged cells can create a tumor, most commonly seen as a mole or dark mark on the skin or scalp.

Alysa Herman, M.D., a dermatologist and micrographic skin surgeon experienced with the Mohs technique and affiliated with South Miami, Baptist and Doctors Hospitals, sees patients who took their skin, and protecting it, for granted.

“When I’m seeing patients who have a skin tumor that needs to be removed, they’re often shocked that they have skin cancer,” she said.  “Many, too, don’t realize the seriousness of their diagnosis because they think ‘People don’t die from skin cancer’.”

Yet, according to the American Cancer Society, nearly 9,500 people are expected to die from melanoma this year, and the rates of melanoma have been increasing for at least 30 years.

Dr. Herman advises people to check their skin monthly.  Even though most moles don’t have any symptoms, she recommends that people pay attention to any of the following changes in the skin using the ABCDs of melanoma:

·    Asymmetry – is the mole or mark uneven on one side?
·    Borders – does it have an irregular-shaped or bumpy border?
·    Color – has the color changed or is the mole multicolored?
·    Diameter – is it larger than an eraser at the end of a pencil?

She says that if any of these characteristics are present, you should see a dermatologist right away.

To diagnose skin cancer, Dr. Herman takes a biopsy of the mole for a pathologist to examine under a microscope.  If it comes back malignant or abnormal, Dr. Herman excises, or surgically removes, the mole and the incision is stitched closed.

If the melanoma is caught early, before spreading to nearby lymph nodes or other organs, the removal of the cancerous area signifies a cure.  But, patients must be checked regularly by their dermatologist to ensure other melanomas don’t develop.

When melanoma spreads, or metastasizes, beyond the skin, the patient is referred to an oncologist, or cancer specialist, to plan further treatment options.  These treatments may include chemotherapy and surgery.

“Skin cancer is one of the most preventable and curable cancers,” Dr. Herman says.  “So people should really make an effort to examine and protect their skin.  Finding it early can mean the difference between life and death.”

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With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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