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Dr. Lawrence Samuels, St. Luke's Hospital

Protect your skin from melanoma

Tanning beds are popular with many young women today. Unfortunately, the incidence of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, in this demographic is on the upswing, too.

According to a newly-released Mayo Clinic study covering 40 years, cases of melanoma in women ages 18 to 39 increased eight-fold, which is an alarming figure. Researchers involved in the study do not have clear-cut evidence to explain the rise in these cases, but the consensus seems to be the increase in the use of tanning beds. Some studies suggest that tanning beds increase the risk of developing a melanoma by 74 percent.

Melanomas occur most frequently in people with light-colored hair or iris (eye) color because their skin is more susceptible to ultraviolet light rays. Any woman that freckles and burns in the sun regularly without tanning has an increased risk. A woman who has a large number of moles (i.e., greater than 25) is also melanoma-prone.

Treatment for a melanoma usually involves surgically removing the cancerous skin cells and some normal tissue that surrounds the cancer site. If the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, they may also need to be removed. Subsequent chemotherapy or immunotherapy may also be needed.

To help detect melanomas, what should you look for? Use the "ABCDE" method:
  • Asymmetry: Melanomas generally have an irregular shape.
  • Border irregularity: The border is irregular and often notched.
  • Color variation: Although melanomas are usually dark brown or black, they may sometimes have a range of colors including tan, brown, blue, pink or white.
  • Diameter: Eventually, melanomas become larger than ordinary moles. Any pigmented spot greater than five millimeters in diameter should be examined and followed carefully.
  • Evolution: Some early melanomas begin to increase in size, elevation, color or sensation. A lesion that begins to change in this fashion should be checked immediately.
Melanoma in advanced stages is difficult to treat. So, avoid the urge to visit tanning salons, and be sure to use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. If you experience any of the "ABCDE" signs, see your physician.

Dr. Lawrence Samuels is the chief of dermatology at St. Luke's Hospital. To learn more about early detection and the treatment of skin cancer, call 314-576-7343.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 3, 2012.

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