(BPT) - Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. If left untreated, it can quickly spread to other parts of your body. The cancer forms inside melanocytes, which are the cells that determine your skin color. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or artificial sources cause these cells to grow out of control and are the most common cause of melanoma.
However, there is evidence that a family history of melanoma can increase your risk for developing the disease, especially if you have a parent, child or sibling who had it. “Researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact reason why family members are more prone to melanoma,” says Dr. Sam Economou, certified aesthetic and reconstructive plastic surgeon for Minnesota Oncology and Plastic Surgery Consultants. “But if you have a family history, there are ways to protect yourself.”
Dr. Economou offers the following tips to help prevent and protect against melanoma.
Block the sun
There’s no such thing as a healthy tan. Limit the amount of time you spend outside in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This is when the sun’s rays are at their peak. Be sure to use sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher and apply it liberally 15 to 20 minutes before going outside. Don’t forget to reapply every two hours, after getting wet or drying off with a towel. You can also wear a hat, extra clothing and sunglasses to protect your skin from sunlight. And as a rule of thumb, never use tanning beds. Artificial UV rays are just as harmful as those from natural sunlight.
Schedule regular check-ups
Half of new melanoma cases are expected to be invasive, which means the cancer grows deeper into the skin, according to the American Cancer Society. Melanoma is a particularly aggressive cancer and can spread within the body in three to 18 months if not caught and treated early. And once it spreads, it becomes much more difficult to treat. If you have a family history of skin cancer, you should have your skin examined annually by a qualified healthcare professional. Your doctor or nurse can identify suspicious growths on your skin before it has the chance to spread.
In between doctor visits, stay vigilant by conducting self-exams of your skin. Get in the habit of checking your skin once a month. That way, you can more easily decide if a freckle, mole and pigmented area has changed. When examining a growth on your skin, look for asymmetry, uneven or jagged borders, a change in color or areas larger than a pencil eraser. If you find areas on your skin that are raised or thick, it could be a sign that cancer is spreading. If you do notice suspicious changes, contact a dermatologist as soon as possible.
Regardless of family history, everyone is at risk for melanoma. Follow these tips to protect your skin, so you can seek help when something doesn’t seem right. For more information, visit mnoncology.com.