Is skin cancer hereditary? My 63-year-old brother died of melanoma last year, and I'm wondering about my risks of developing skin cancer. What can you tell me?
Long-term sun exposure and sunburns are the biggest risk factors for melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer. If you have a sibling or parent who has been diagnosed with melanoma, your risk of developing it does increase by two to three times.
Each year, approximately 75,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma and around 10,000 people die from it. While anyone can get it, those most often diagnosed are Caucasians, age 50 and older. Those with the highest risk are people with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, fair skin, freckles, moles, a family history of skin cancer and those who had blistering sunburns in their youth.
The best way you can guard against melanoma and other skin cancers (basal and squamous cell carcinomas) is to protect yourself from the sun. If you are over age 50 it is recommended that you get a full-body skin exam done by a dermatologist every year, especially if you are in the high risk category.
Self-examinations done every month or so are also a smart way to detect early problems. Using mirrors, check the front and backside of your entire body, including the tops and undersides of your arms and hands, the soles of your feet, your neck, scalp, buttocks and even between your toes. Be on the lookout for new growths, moles that have changed or sores that do not heal.
Follow the ABCDE rule when examining suspicious moles.
- Asymmetry: One half of a mole does not match the other.
- Border: The border of the mole is blurred or ragged.
- Color: The mole has uneven colors, often shades of brown, tan or black, with patches of pink, red, white or blue.
- Diameter: The lesion is new or at least a quarter-inch in diameter.
- Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape or color.
There are a variety of places that offer free skin cancer screenings. Check with the American Academy of Dermatology, which offers screenings done by hundreds of volunteer dermatologists across the U.S., and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
Even though you cannot change your skin or family history, there are some proven strategies that can help you protect yourself.
For starters, avoid tanning beds. When you go outside, apply water-resistant, broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen on both sunny and cloudy days. If you do not like rub-on lotions, try the continuous spray-on sunscreens, which can be easier to apply and less messy. Also, seek the shade when the sun's rays are most intense, typically between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
You can also protect your skin by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and pants when possible. The best clothing options are tightly-woven fabrics that help prevent the sun's rays from reaching your skin. You can also buy laundry additives to wash in an invisible shield sun protection into your clothes. You can even buy a variety of lightweight clothing and hats that offer maximum UV protection in their fabric.
If melanoma is found and treated early, it is almost always curable. But if it is not caught early, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body where it becomes harder to treat and can be fatal. Standard treatment for melanoma is surgical removal. In advanced cases, however, chemotherapy or radiation may also be used, along with a variety of new drug treatments.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living” book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization’s official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.