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Melanoma: Start Your Monthly Skin Checkup

It’s ime to honor your body’s largest organ — the skin — with a serious and generous self-examination. In fact, this is something you should do every single month, like clockwork, said dermatologist Alysa Herman, M.D., [1] a skin cancer surgeon affiliated with Baptist Hospital, Doctors Hospital and South Miami Hospital.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with about 5.4 million cases annually [2] in the United States, not counting melanoma. “Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer,” Dr. Herman said. “It can be fatal and it often is. We have to treat it early and stop it from progressing.”

In fact, more than 10,000 people are projected to die from melanoma in the United States in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society [3]. In contrast, the two most common forms of skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell, are rarely fatal.

Genetic predisposition is a significant risk factor for melanoma, and several melanoma susceptibility genes have been identified. Still, “there’s no question that sun exposure plays a role,” Dr. Herman said, adding that occasional but intense exposure to the sun, leading to sunburn, can increase a person’s risk for melanoma.

In contrast, basal and squamous cell skin cancers are caused by long-term sun exposure — “chronic, cumulative exposure,” Dr. Herman called it. Prevention, therefore, is both possible and key.

Natalie Sanchez, M.D. [4], a Baptist Health Medical Group [5] physician with Baptist Health Primary Care [6], said skin cancer prevention, detection and a skin exam are part of every routine physical she performs.

“A large part of my job is prevention and education about what makes something look suspicious,” she said. “I examine patients head to toe. If anything looks suspicious, I refer them to the dermatologist.”

Some hopeful news on the melanoma front: Newly developed, targeted chemotherapy for melanomas with specific genetic mutations are proving effective. “The new medications are prolonging and enhancing survival, which is huge,” Dr. Herman said.

Here are five tips to help prevent skin cancer:

  1. Start your day, every day, by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. Reapply at least every two hours when outside (you need an ounce to cover most of the body.) “It’s a challenge to get people to wear sunscreen on a daily basis, but prevention is the best weapon we have against skin cancer,” Dr. Sanchez said.
  2. Wear protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with total UV protection. “A lot of times we forget the eyes, “ said Dr. Herman, adding that the sun’s ultraviolent radiation can damage the eyes, leading to the formation of cataracts and melanoma.
  3. Avoid the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and definitely avoid getting a burn. “It’s not just the exposure, but the burning,” Dr. Herman said. “When the skin turns red, it’s signaling damage at the DNA level.”
  4. Do monthly self-examinations of your skin and see a physician once a year for a professional screening exam. Use the mnemonic, ABCDE [7], to help you recognize moles or growths on your skin that may be developing into skin cancer. “I always hand out brochures which show examples of what to look for,” Dr. Herman said.
  5. Stay away from tanning salons. Just one indoor tanning session raises the risk of melanoma by 20 percent, Dr. Herman said. The good news: If you want the tanned look, spray and cream products have been developed to produce a “totally safe” and natural bronze look. “You can still get the color you want,” Dr. Herman said, “without having to damage your skin.”