Understanding Melanoma

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May 14, 2013

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This post is available in: Spanish

As summer approaches, you’re undoubtedly heading outside to take advantage of all the activities that South Florida’s weather has to offer. Before donning your shorts, tank top, sandals and swimsuit, take time to understand how prolonged sun exposure increases your chance of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

According to Omar Llaguna, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group surgeon who treats patients with skin cancer, melanoma can develop when repeated exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light damages the pigmented cells, or melanocytes, that give skin its natural color. The damaged cells then reproduce uncontrollably to create a tumor.

In most cases, these “tumors” appear on the skin as moles that change shape, color, size or thickness. They can also be found in the mucous membranes and in our eyes. If not discovered early, these clusters of malignant cells can metastasize, or invade other tissues and organs in the body, making the cancer harder to treat.

“The key is vigilance,” Dr. Llaguna suggests. “The more familiar you become with your skin, the less likely you are for developing this deadly disease.”

Dr. Llaguna recommends examining your skin regularly with a handheld mirror, even enlisting the help of a family member to look at harder-to-see areas, like the back. He also advises seeing a dermatologist yearly, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer or regularly work outdoors. Those with numerous moles or a history of abnormal moles should discuss with their doctor how often their skin should be examined by a doctor or dermatologist.

Dr. Llaguna warns young people not to mistakenly think this is a disease that affects older people. “We’re seeing younger and younger people coming in with melanoma,” he said. “Many look back on their childhood and adolescent years as likely culprits, because they didn’t think about the level of sun exposure they were getting.” Sadly, Dr. Llaguna reports, the younger patients can have more advanced disease.

“People do die from melanoma, but knowing what to look for significantly increases your chance of recognizing changes in your skin and taking early action to treat potential problems,” he said.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how you should protect your skin to reduce your risk for melanoma.


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