Wearing sunscreen and protective clothing are great ways to guard against skin cancer – and that’s true even if you have past sun exposure dating back decades.
Dr. Martin Fleming, a surgical oncologist who specializes in treating melanoma at Regional One Health, said protecting your skin and checking for moles are the best way to prevent serious illness.
When skin cancer is caught early, it is usually treatable with a simple outpatient procedure.
These days, most people know that too much sun exposure can increase their risk of melanoma. But what if you grew up in an era when sun protection wasn’t as common?
Martin Fleming, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist at Regional One Health, said you can still take steps to protect your skin and catch problems early: “Melanoma is preventable, but the problem is the sun you get as a child, teenager or young adult is what often leads to melanoma in your 40s, 50s or 60s.”
Dr. Fleming said it’s never too late to start protecting your skin: “Minimizing sun exposure as you grow up with sunscreens of at least SPF 50 and protective clothing will help prevent melanoma and minimize the risks going forward for folks that have had a lot of sun exposure.”
The other piece of the puzzle, Dr. Fleming said, is checking your skin. “If we find melanoma early, it’s usually more of a nuisance than a life-threatening problem. It may require a simple outpatient surgery to take care of it, with a 99 percent cure rate.”
He recommends the “ABC” approach to identifying moles that should be checked by a doctor:
- A: Asymmetry, or irregularly shaped rather than round or oval.
- B: Border Irregularity, where the edges feather into the skin.
- C: Color Variation, or brown, blue, pink or red rather than light brown.
- D: Diameter of over 5 millimeters, or about the size of a pencil eraser.
- E: Evolution, or changes like growing quickly, bleeding, itching, etc.
“You can have all of those and still not have a melanoma, but those are hints of a skin lesion that should be evaluated, possibly biopsied or taken off in the office,” Dr. Fleming said.
He noted simple melanomas can be removed with an easy outpatient surgery. “It’s a 30-minute procedure where patients walk in and walk out, and that’s the only treatment you need.”
For deep melanomas, patients have surgery to remove the cancer and may need immunotherapy if the cancer has spread, usually to the lymph nodes. “There is a high cure rate and a low rate of problems and complications from treatment,” Dr. Fleming said. “Immunotherapies cause fewer complications and side effects than chemotherapy.”
Bottom line, all patients can take charge of their skin cancer risk, whether they have a history of sun exposure or not. “Don’t be shy about going to see somebody, whether it’s a dermatologist, primary care doctor or oncologist,” Dr. Fleming said.
“If you have something you’re concerned about, have it evaluated. If you are diagnosed with melanoma, the earlier we find it, the simpler the treatment and the higher the cure rate. We have new, sophisticated treatments, and we do everything possible to get rid of the melanoma and minimize its impact on your life.”