Knowing your entire body well is a major key to Mastering Your Health.  With the summer at hand, it is crucial that we all give due attention to our skin.  Melanoma, a form of skin cancer, can be deadly and affects all people, even kids.  Knowing what to look for and when to ask questions may be the key to catching this condition early.  Dr. Candrice Heath, a dermatologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital, talks about the ABCs of melanoma.

What You Must Know about Melanoma

by Candrice Heath, MD, FAAP

Did you know that the SKIN is the body’s largest organ? We often take our natural, protective shield for granted, but the skin deserves special attention.  When was the last time you actually examined your skin-everywhere? Do you have moles or bumps that bleed? Are you a natural redhead?  All of these and more determine your risk of melanoma.  Early detection may prevent this cancer from spreading, and, in many cases, treatment can lead to cure.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that is potentially deadly. It results from the abnormal growth of melanocytes—the pigment producing cells—in the skin, eyes and hair.  In some types of melanoma, ultraviolet radiation is the main culprit.

People with all skin colors, including those of European descent as well as African and Asian descent, may develop melanoma.  Melanoma may occur on the skin, under the nails or on mucous membranes like the mouth or genital area. When melanoma occurs in people with darker skin types, it often occurs under the nails, or on the palms or feet.

Take the initiative to learn more about your skin and perform self-skin checks.  You are not off the hook between your yearly physician skin examinations. So, what exactly are you looking for?  Here are a few tips to get you started.

1.  Look for early abnormal skin changes by remembering  “ABCDE”

  • A- Asymmetry: If you divide the mole down the middle, does one side look different than the other?
  • B- Border: Are the borders irregular or rippled? Is it hard to figure out where the mole ends because there is no defined border?
  • C- Color: Does color vary within the mole? Are some areas tan while others are brown or black?  Are there areas of white, blue or red within the mole?
  • D- Diameter: Although most melanomas are not diagnosed until they are the size of a pencil eraser (about 6mm), early detection is key.  Pay attention to smaller moles as well.
  • E- Evolving: If you have a mole that simply does not look like others, begins to change in any way, itches or bleeds; these are all reasons to see a dermatologist.

2. Know the things that increase your risk for melanoma, which include:

  • Ultraviolet radiation:
    • Blistering sunburns in childhood or as a teenager
    • Use of tanning beds
  • Fair skin that burns easily and rarely tans.  Also persons with:
    • Blond or Red hair
    • Blue or Green eyes
  • Family history of melanoma:
    • In immediate family –Parents, Siblings and Children
    • Other family members—uncles, aunts
  • Do you have 50 moles or more?  This is a known risk factor.
  • Irregular looking moles
  • Immune (infection-fighting) system conditions
    • HIV
    • Organ transplant recipients
    • People on medication that can decreased immune system
  • Previous history of melanoma or other types of skin caner
  • Age 50 years or greater

3.   Know thy skin and don’t be afraid to use a mirror to look into all nooks and crevices.  Taking a few moments each month to do this on your own will help you answer one of the questions that the physician performing your full body skin examination will ask; Have you noticed if any of your moles or brown spots have changed?

Candrice R. Heath, MD, FAAP is a pediatrician with a special expertise in dermatology and is currently a Northwestern University and Children’s Memorial Hospital Dermatology Clinical Research Fellow in Chicago, IL.  Her areas of dermatology clinical interest include pediatric & adolescent dermatology, hair loss, pigment disorders, skin of color and autoimmune disease.