Melanoma Fast Facts
How to save your own life
I saved my husband’s life. Two times. That’s pretty powerful stuff (and occasionally he’s grateful enough to wash and wax my car).
The first time, I was giving him a back rub and saw a dark spot that looked just like the photograph in an article about melanoma I’d been editing that day. His dermatologist confirmed it, and even let me watch when he carved the mole along with a soberingly large divot of tissue out of Steve’s back. It’s the kind of thing that makes your doctor’s day. “Catch this cancer now, and you’re fine,” he told us. “But let it go, and it’ll kill you.”
A couple of years later, I spied a tiny black spot on Steve’s nose, like a blackhead only different. The doc said it didn’t look like any melanoma he’d seen, but he biopsied the spot and sure enough, it was. Because the lesion was on Steve’s face, it was removed with a technique called Mohs surgery, which minimizes scarring. Successive thin layers are carved away and biopsied until a clear margin is obtained; that way, as little tissue as possible is removed. No divots.
Stay alert and you can save somebody’s life too – maybe even your own. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is 99 percent curable if it’s found before it has penetrated the epidermis. If it isn’t caught early, though, survival rates can drop to 15 percent. You should check yourself regularly; the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends once a month. You’re looking for any change in moles or other spots – a shift in color, an increase in size, a change in texture. Be alert for moles with irregular outlines, as well as sores that continue to itch or hurt, scab or bleed. Examine every square inch of skin. Steve’s doc says he once found a skin cancer between a patient’s toes. Skin cancers can even lurk under the hair on your head. The Mayo Clinic‘s website has a slideshow of melanoma lesions that can show you what to look for.
Scientists estimate that 90 percent of all cases of melanoma are associated with exposure to the sun’s UV rays. So protect yourself when you go outdoors (see Sunscreen Sense), and don’t even think about trying a tanning bed. People who use them can be twice as likely to develop certain skin cancers. Recent research shows that indoor tanning can be a tough habit to quit. Frequent tanners can have a hard time giving up the glow, possibly because UV exposure stimulates the release of endorphins that make them feel calm. In one study, subjects actually experienced withdrawal symptoms when they stopped tanning.
Of course, you want to find and eradicate the other types of skin cancer – squamous cell and basal cell cancers – but melanoma is the big killer. That’s the one you cannot afford to miss. Ask Steve.