Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in your melanocytes, which are cells in the upper layer of your skin that produce melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives your skin its color, from palest cream to darkest brown. All types of skin cancer are potentially life-threatening, but melanoma is especially pernicious because it has the ability to metastasize (i.e., spread) throughout your body and cause cancer in your bones and other organs, too.
The caring and expert dermatologists at Specialists in Dermatology — with locations in Houston, Texas, and The Woodlands, Texas — are committed to helping women, men, and children of all skin types stay skin-cancer free. Here they provide a breakdown of melanoma triggers:
Having fair skin, but…
Dark-skinned people can develop melanoma, too. The reggae singer Bob Marley died at age 36 from acral lentiginous melanoma, a type of melanoma that usually affects women, men, and children with dark skin tones.
No matter how light or dark your skin is, you should regularly examine it for signs of suspicious lesions. Because many African Americans are diagnosed at a later stage of disease, they have only a 66% melanoma survival rate, compared to a 94% survival rate for white people.
However, fair-skinned people are more likely to develop melanoma in the first place. Fair-skinned people lack an abundance of a melanocyte called eumelanin, which helps protect skin from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) energy.
Your skin actually has two different types of melanocytes: protective eumelanin and a non-protective melanocyte called pheomelanin. When exposed to the UVA and UVB rays, your eumelanin cells darken in an attempt to block the rays. A suntan, in fact, is evidence of your eumelanin reacting to UV energy and trying to protect you.
Pheomelanin cells, however, don’t get darker and can’t protect your skin. Fair skins have many more pheomelanin cells than eulamelanin, while darker skins have many more protective eulamelanins. That’s why fair skin can’t protect itself as well from UV rays and subsequent DNA damage and skin cell mutations.
Getting a tan
Every time you get a suntan — whether on the beach or at the spa — you expose your skin to damaging UV energy. About 86% of melanoma cases are caused by the sun.
Tanning beds aren’t any safer than natural sunlight. In fact, tanning beds are officially considered carcinogenic (i.e., cancer causing), and more than 6,200 melanoma cases in the US per year are linked to these devices. Many countries throughout the world — including Brazil and the United Kingdom — have completely banned tanning beds.
Though even one sunburn raises your risk for all types of skin cancer, if you’ve had five or more sunburns, your risk for melanoma doubles. And just one severe, blistering burn that you suffered as a child or teen doubles your risk for melanoma, too.
Limiting your exposure to the sun, avoiding tanning beds altogether, and using a medical-grade sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more can help reduce your risk of melanoma. However, other triggers may be out of your control. If you have any of the following risk factors, stay extra alert to changes in your moles or skin, including skin that isn’t exposed to the sun:
- A weakened immune system (from a disease, condition, or medications)
- Family member who had melanoma
- History of skin cancer
- Many moles
Assess your risk for melanoma by taking this online quiz.
Most melanomas don’t come from moles
It’s important to keep track of moles and other lesions on your skin and note any changes in size, shape, or color. However, up to 80% of melanomas appear on skin that was previously clear and mole-free.
If you have dark skin, you’re more likely to develop a melanoma on an area that isn’t exposed to the sun, such as the palms of your hands, soles of your feet, in your fingernails, or in your mucous membranes. Light-skinned people tend to develop melanoma on their legs or trunks.
An annual skin-cancer exam at Specialists in Dermatology lets your doctor catch melanoma in its earliest stages, when it’s more easily treated. Our expert doctors are skilled in a type of curative skin cancer surgery called Mohs surgery that completely removes the cancerous lesion. If you have melanoma, however, we may also refer you to an oncologist to be sure that your cancer hasn’t spread.
If you have a suspicious lesion, changes in a mole, or if it’s time for your annual skin-cancer screening, contact us today by phone or online booking form.