Dermatologist recommends monthly self-exams to catch melanoma early

Skin cancer can affect anyone at any time, but if you're a man, your risks are greater of developing melanoma skin cancer.

Studies show that of the 46,000 new cases of skin cancer found annually, roughly 10,000 people will die from melanoma. What makes this disease so dangerous is if it's not caught early, it's more likely to spread to other parts of the body. Men fare worse, too. The majority of people diagnosed with melanoma are white men over age 55.

"It's very important that we find melanoma early," said dermatologist Danyelle Dawes, MD, a dermatologist with University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. "With this type of cancer, your survival is directly tied to how deep in the skin the melanoma is."

To catch melanoma and other skin cancers early, Dr. Dawes recommends giving yourself monthly self-exams during which you follow the ABCDE rule. This means you check moles and skin changes for:

•Asymmetry, where one half doesn't match the appearance of the other half

•Border irregularity to see if edges are ragged, notched and/or blurred

•Color to make sure the pigmentation is uniform. Tan, brown and black are good. Dashes of red, white and blue add to a mottled appearance and should be checked.

•Diameter to check that the mole size isn't greater than one-fourth inch (or six millimeters), which is the size of a pencil eraser.

•Evolution to watch for changes in the size, shape and symptoms - such as itching or tenderness, surface (especially bleeding) and/or color of a mole.

"Look in the mirror and if something concerns you, take a picture," she says. "Next month, compare what you see with the picture to find subtle changes that you might not notice otherwise."

According to Dr. Dawes. you should see a dermatologist at least annually if you have risk factors for melanoma, which include:

•Fair skin. Having less pigment, or melanin, in your skin means you have less protection from damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation. If you have blond or red hair, light-colored eyes or freckle or sunburn easily, you're more likely to develop melanoma than someone with a darker complexion. However, melanoma can occur in people with darker complexions, too.

•A history of sunburn. One or more severe, blistering sunburns increases your risk of melanoma.

•Excessive UV light exposure. In addition to exposure from the sun, the time you spent using tanning lights and beds increases your risk.

•Living closer to the equator or at a higher elevations. The more direct the sun's rays, the higher your exposure to UV radiation.

•Having many or unusual moles. More than 50 ordinary moles on your body indicate an increased risk of melanoma. Also, having an unusual type of mole, known medically as dysplastic nevi, that is larger than normal with irregular borders and a mixture of colors, increases your risk.

•A family history of melanoma. If a close relative - parent, child or sibling - has had melanoma, you have a greater chance of developing it.

•Weakened immune system. If you've had an organ transplant or other medical condition that weakens the immune system, your risk is greater.

"How often a person should be screened by a dermatologist depends on your family and personal history," she says. "However, if you don't have any of these risk factors and you see something that is concerning you, have it checked. It's always easier to get a physician's input and be reassured that everything is okay than stress out over nothing."

Be sure to use sunscreens faithfully because sunburns happen in the winter, too, Dr. Dawes says. She recommends that whenever you're out and about to use suntan lotion with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 or more. Reapply it every two hours or after going into the water. During the winter, use sun protection while skiing and when doing other outdoor activities.

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