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Healthy habits for Bonsall and Fallbrook folks – Melanoma and protecting our skin from cancer

Dr. Megan Johnson McCullough

Special to the Village News

The most serious type of cancer is melanoma. Cancer develops in cells called melanocytes which are the cells that make melanin. We get our skin color (pigment) from melanocytes. Therefore, melanoma is often generalized as skin cancer.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the major cause of this skin condition, which can come from the sun and/or UV tanning beds. If detected early, melanoma can be treated. Limiting exposure to UV rays is the key.

The most common places melanomas form is in the areas of the skin that have been the most exposed to UV rays. This is usually on the back, arms, legs, and face. They can also be found in more uncommon areas such as the palms of your hands, soles of your feet, or even on fingernail beds. People with darker skin may not even be aware they have developed melanomas.

The first signs you might see when melanomas have formed are unusual growths on your skin and/or changes in how a mole looks/feels. A normal mole is uniform in color with a border that separates it from the rest of your skin. A normal mole is usually brown, tan, or black, has a round shape and is about the size of a pencil eraser (1/4 inch, 6 millimeters).

When it comes to unusual moles, the ABCDE method can be used for melanoma assessment:

A – Asymmetrical shape – irregular shape, the two halves of the mole look different

B – Irregular border – notched or scalloped border

C – Changes in color – many colors and/or uneven distribution of color

D – Diameter – the mole has grown to be larger than ¼ inch/6 millimeters in diameter

E – Evolving – over time the mole has grown and/or changed in color; keep checking all your moles over time

There are risk factors that can increase your chance of having melanomas, besides UV exposure. This could include having fair skin because you burn easier in the sun, having had a history of sunburns, living at a higher elevation or closer to the equator (puts you at more direct exposure to UV rays); if you have a lot of moles (50 or more) the chances of having unusual moles increases, and/or having a family history of melanoma.

It is very important to avoid the sun during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The sun's strongest rays are during these hours. The clouds are not enough protection no matter what time of day or year it is. Wearing sunscreen is a must too. A broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher is best.

Avoiding tanning beds is important, or any type of tanning lamp. Wearing a hat, sunglasses, and clothes that cover skin exposed to the sun is always a good idea no matter how long you are going to be in the sun.

For diagnosis, a doctor will take a biopsy of the skin with potential melanoma. If it is in fact melanoma, the thickness of it needs to be determined to plan treatment type. A thicker melanoma might require more testing to see if it has spread.

The doctor wants to be sure it has not spread to the lymph nodes. Melanoma is diagnosed and labeled with Roman numerals 0 to IV. The higher the numeral, the lower the chance of recovery.

For treatment, a doctor can surgically remove the melanoma and even the affected lymph nodes. Immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and radiation are all treatment options. Regular skin checks are important and can be done at your yearly physicals and every six months by your dermatologist.

Even the tiniest, questionable skin change should be looked at. Being proactive is always better than being reactive when it comes to your health. Sunshine is part of life, but we must be cautious.

Tan skin doesn't mean healthy skin. Living in the moment is not always the best decision. Have some sunscreen around wherever you go and lather up. Your skin will thank you and protect you in the long run when you do your job to protect it.

Megan Johnson McCullough, EdD, recently earned her doctorate in physical education and health science, is a professional natural bodybuilder and is a National Academy of Sports Medicine master trainer.

 

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