Protect Your Skin: What Causes Melanoma?

By Brent D. Wainwright | Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month

Since 1995, the American Academy of Dermatology has designated the first Monday in May as Melanoma Monday®, which officially kicks off  “Skin Cancer Awareness Month.” Melanoma, the deadliest form of this disease, is the most important to watch out for. As the summer approaches and you spend more time outside, we encourage you to protect your skin and examine it regularly for any suspicious changes.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. One in five Americans will develop it in their lifetime. An average of one person dies of melanoma every hour.  Rates have doubled over the last 30 years.

According to Dr. Wainwright, an expert in the management and treatment of complex pigmented lesions (moles) and melanoma, “Skin cancer does not discriminate – all skin types are susceptible to varying degree.” He points out that some people might be unaware that the legendary Bob Marley’s unfortunate early death was due to metastatic melanoma.

What causes melanoma exactly? Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause changes in the DNA of some skin cells and turn them cancerous. UV radiation can also come from tanning booths or sunlamps. Despite their popularity, Dr. Wainwright says, “There is no safe tan; every time you tan, you damage your skin.  This damage accelerates the aging of your skin and increases the risk for all types of skin cancer.”

Fortunately, skin cancer can almost always be cured when it’s treated early. We can all take an active role in preventing and detecting it. Dr. Wainwright offers his wisdom below.

 

Protect Your Skin from the Sun

  • Seek shade. Remember that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Wear protective clothing, like a long-sleeved shirt, pants, wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.
  • Generously apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen (with SPF 30 or above) to all exposed skin.
  • Reapply every 2 hours, or more. Always do it after swimming or sweating.
  • Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand. They reflect the rays of the sun, which increases your chance of sunburn.
  • Avoid tanning beds. You might like the tanned look but unfortunately, the UV light from these beds can cause skin cancer and premature aging. In fact, women aged 18-39 are 8 times more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma– due to indoor tanning! According to Dr. Wainwright, “[It’s] the second most common cancer in women in their 20s.”
  • Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before going outdoors.
  • Did you know that skin cancer can also form on the lips? To protect yourself, apply a lip balm that contains SPF 30 or above.

Improve Chances of Early Detection

  • Look for new or changing spots on your skin. You can visit SpotSkinCancer.org for more details on how to perform a self-exam. Encourage friends and family to do the same.
  • If you spot anything changing, itching, or bleeding, you should see a dermatologist.
  • Go for a full-body visual examination and skin cancer screening every year. If your dermatologist identifies a suspicious lesion (growth), they may suggest a biopsy. This is a minimally invasive procedure without any significant discomfort.

Dr. Wainwright is trained in dermoscopy, a painless and noninvasive technique used to help doctors better visualize lesions and identify skin cancer at its most early stage. He is based at CareMount’s Katonah campus.

Have a safe and happy May!