Melanoma Myths & Facts

Melanoma Myths and Facts

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From an early age, we’re often taught about the importance of protecting our skin when we’re out in the sun. We learn to lather on sunscreen, wear a hat to protect our faces and sit in the shade when possible. As we grow up, we better understand the reasons protecting our skin is so important. Aside from the obvious pain and discomfort of having a sunburn, we want to minimize our risk of developing skin cancer.

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. It is characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells and it can appear on the skin suddenly or develop on an existing mole. More than one million people are living with melanoma, and one person dies of the disease every hour. If melanoma is detected early, it is highly treatable. When it becomes advanced, however, it can spread to the lymph nodes and internal organs, which can result in death.

We spoke with Fade Mahmoud, MD of Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, to get the facts behind some common assumptions about melanoma and skin cancer.

Myth: It’s just a skin cancer, I will be okay.

Facts: Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. and melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It is expected that 7,230 Americans will die from melanoma in 2019. Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in young women ages 25 to 30 and the second leading cause of cancer death in women ages 30 to 35. Therefore, seeing a doctor for anything out of the ordinary is crucial.

Myth: Melanoma is rare and only affects people of old age.

Facts: In 2019, over 96,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with invasive melanoma. The incidences of people under the age of 30 developing melanoma is growing increasingly faster than any other demographic group, soaring by 50% in women since 1980. In those ages 15 to 29, melanoma is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer. Approximately 500 American children are diagnosed with melanoma each year.

Myth: People with darker skin don’t get melanoma.

Facts: While people with lighter skin and eye color are at higher risk of developing melanoma, anyone can get melanoma regardless of race or color. The lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 1 in 40 for Caucasians, 1 in 200 for Hispanics and 1 in 1,000 for African-Americans. Research has shown that patients with skin of color are less likely than Caucasian patients to survive melanoma. Melanoma does not discriminate by age, race or gender.

Myth: Melanoma can occur only on the skin.

Facts: Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body - eyes, scalp, nails, feet and areas with mucous membranes. Ocular melanoma, or melanoma of the eye, is the most common primary eye tumor in adults with around 2,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States. Mucosal melanoma is a rare form of melanoma that develops in the sinuses, nasal passages, oral cavity, vagina, anus and other areas, making up about 1% of melanoma cases.

Myth: Melanoma is always dark in color.

Facts: Certain melanomas, called “amelanotic melanoma”, may have no color at all. These unpigmented melanomas may be pinkish-looking, reddish, purple, normal skin color or essentially clear and colorless. While these melanomas lack pigment, they may have other melanoma warning signs to stay on the lookout for, such as asymmetry and an irregular border.

Myth: You need chronic sun exposure for years to develop melanoma.

Facts: Nearly 90% of melanomas are thought to be caused by exposure to UV light and sunlight. Increasing intermittent sun exposure in childhood and during one’s lifetime is associated with an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. It takes only one blistering sunburn, especially at a young age, to double a person's risk of developing melanoma later in life. Experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 increases one’s melanoma risk by 80% and nonmelanoma skin cancer risk by 68%.

Myth:  There is no need to apply sunscreen during cloudy days.

Facts: You should still wear sunscreen even on cloudy days. Even on cloudy days, 80% of the UV rays penetrate the clouds and reach our skin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the highest rates of melanoma are in some of the cloudiest states, like Washington, Oregon and Vermont. In these areas, people may not apply sunscreen frequently because the cloudy climate may provide them with a false sense of protection.

Myth: Tanning beds are safer than the sun.

Facts: A 2003 study of tanning facilities in North Carolina found that the average amount of UVA radiation emitted by the beds in the study was four times higher than what’s emitted by the noontime sun, and the average UVB radiation level was nearly twice as high as the sun. The World Health Organization classifies tanning beds as "carcinogenic to humans." Exposure to tanning beds before age 30 increases a person's risk of developing melanoma by 75%. Young people who regularly use tanning beds are 8 times more likely to develop melanoma than people who have never used them.

Myth: I need to be in the sun without sunscreen to get my vitamin D.

Facts: Many Americans suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is important for promoting strong, healthy bones. It’s true that UV exposure without the protection of sunscreen causes your skin to produce vitamin D. However, there are safer and more efficient ways of getting enough vitamin D: namely, taking vitamin D supplements and eating vitamin-fortified foods like some milk and cereal products. According to the definitive 2010 report on vitamin D from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, there is no research to support the idea that you can safely get vitamin D from UV light without also increasing your risk of developing skin cancer.

Myth: Sunscreen is the only form of sun protection needed to prevent skin cancer

Facts: You can help prevent melanoma by seeking shade whenever possible, wearing protective clothing, avoiding direct sunlight between 10am and 4pm and wearing a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses. Using broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF of at least 30 every day is also important, and it should be applied every two hours during sun exposure.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that you examine your skin head to toe every month, especially looking for any new mole or any sign of change in an existing mole. If you spot any change that you consider suspicious, see a skin specialist without delay. For help finding a doctor who can help, visit: doctors.bannerhealth.com.

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