Today is Melanoma Monday. While that kind of sounds like a melancholy way to kick off the month of May, it's part of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and it's a good reminder to focus on prevention and taking care of your health.
As some of you may know, I was diagnosed earlier this year with melanoma. Skin cancer runs in my family, but it was carcinoma, which is less deadly than melanoma. Still, I knew to be vigilant and keep an eye on my skin, because I have several risk factors for skin cancer: family history, pale skin and light eyes, lots of moles, and sun exposure and sunburn as a child. I avoid the sun now and always use sunscreen, but when I was growing up in Arizona I rarely did, and I also tried tanning beds when I was in junior high because I got teased so much for being pale. (They didn't work; I just burn and go right back to pasty white.) I get annual mole checks by a dermatologist, and I know that if I see a change in a mole, I should go directly to the doctor. That's what happened with the mole that turned out to be melanoma.
There are warning signs to look out for, known as the ABCDEs of melanoma. They stand for:
Asymmetry - if you were to draw a line in the center of the mole, the halves would not match
Border - the borders of the mole may be scalloped or uneven
Color - the mole has multiple colors or different shades of brown, black, or tan
Diameter - the mole has a diameter bigger than 1/4 inch or 6mm (about the size of a pencil eraser, not that any of you use pencils anymore)
Evolving - any change in size, shape, or color
There are photographs and examples at the link above, but my mole didn't look anything like them. The key was that last item - evolving - because the mole, which had been the same my entire life, started changing. The first thing it did was get kind of dry and flaky, so I went to the dermatologist, who took a photo of it and told me to come back in 3 months so she could compare it and see if it had changed. A month later I noticed that it had lost color in the center, so I went right back to her and she removed it. The lab confirmed melanoma shortly afterward.
I was very fortunate to have caught it so early. My melanoma was Stage 0, melanoma in situ, which means the cancerous cells were contained entirely in the epidermis. Still, to be safe, a surgeon needed to remove tissue around it, down to the fat layer, to make sure it hadn't moved beyond that. Fortunately, the margins came back clean, and I am cancer-free (with a pretty badass scar). But since I have prior history of melanoma, I need to be even more vigilant because that diagnosis means I'm at a higher risk of developing melanoma again in the future.
There are a lot of things you can do to help prevent skin cancer. The best way to do this is to limit your exposure to UV light - wear a hat, seek shade, avoid being in direct sunlight when the sun's rays are strongest (10AM - 4PM, generally speaking). Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects from UVA and UVB rays. And get regular skin checks by a dermatologist if you have any of the major risk factors. I'm glad I did.