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Dr. Lawrence Samuels, St. Luke's Hospital

Melanoma risk and warning signs

For the past several years, many healthcare professionals have been stressing the dangers of using tanning beds. According to recent research, however, that message may not be hitting home for many women.

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that between 25 and 30 percent of young, white women reported using an indoor tanning facility during the previous year. That's important because research has shown that those who tan before the age of 35 face an increased risk of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, of up to 75 percent.

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

Treatment for a melanoma usually involves surgically removing the cancerous skin cells and some normal tissue surrounding 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.

What should women 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 six millimeters in diameter (the size of a regular pencil eraser) 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 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 connect with a dermatologist, call 314-205-6060 or visit St. Luke's Physician Referral Service page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 12, 2014.

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