Health awareness

Understanding melanoma: The signs, symptoms and risk factors

March 24, 2021

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What is melanoma?

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. Characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells, melanoma is responsible for the vast majority of skin cancer deaths in the U.S.

Melanomas can occur anywhere on the skin, including areas without sun exposure, but they are more likely to start in certain locations.

Melanoma animation graphic

The average age of diagnosis is 65, but melanoma is not uncommon among people younger than 30. In fact, it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults — especially young women.

Rates have been rising for 30 years

Approximately
106,000

new cases of melanoma of the skin will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021

Approximately
7,200

Americans expected to die of melanoma in 2021

About 62,000 men | About 44,000 women

About 4,600 men | About 2,600 women

While melanoma accounts for only about 1 percent of all skin cancers in the U.S., it causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths.

Signs and symptoms

According to the American Cancer Society, a new spot on the skin — one that changes in size, shape or color, or one that looks different — is an important warning sign of melanoma and should be checked by a doctor. The ABCDE rule outlines the characteristics of moles that may be melanomas and is helpful guidance for monitoring skin changes:

Illustration A is for Asymmetry

A is for Asymmetry

One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.

B is for Border

The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.

Illustration C is for Color

C is for Color

The color is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.

Illustration D is for Diameter

D is for Diameter

The spot is more than 6 millimeters across (about 1/4 inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.

Illustration E is for Evolving

E is for Evolving

The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

Any of these warning signs should be discussed with a doctor, especially if you feel you are at risk for melanoma.

Risk factors

  • Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure
  • Moles
  • Fair skin, freckles and light hair
  • Family history
  • Personal history of having melanoma or other skin cancers
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Being older
  • Being male
  • Xeroderma pigmentosum (a rare skin condition that affects the skin’s ability to repair DNA damage)

Ways to lower risk

Melanoma can’t be entirely prevented, but there are ways to lower risk. The number one way to lower risk is to protect against UV rays, which damage the DNA of skin cells and impact the genes that control skin cell growth. The top source of UV rays is the sun. That’s why it’s important to practice sun safety every time you go outside, even on cloudy days when UV rays can still shine through. Here are a few ways to protect yourself:

Seek shade

UV exposure is greatest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you need to be outside during these hours, seek shade – under a tree, an umbrella or an awning.

Wear a hat

Try to find a hat with a wide brim – at least 2 or 3 inches wide – to protect your face, top of the head, ears and neck.

Cover up

Choose clothing with a tight knit or weave, and avoid shirts that you can see through. Remember, if light is getting through, then UV rays are too.

Use sunscreen

For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Wear sunglasses

Protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them. Pick a pair that will block as close to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays as possible.

Check the UV index

Check the sun’s UV radiation levels online at the Environmental Protection Agency’s UV Index.