Melanoma Risk Factors
Skin Cancer Doesn’t Discriminate
Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation can damage your skin and increase your risk of developing melanoma, a type of cancer that develops in cells called melanocytes. These cells produce melanin, a brown pigment that protects the deeper layers of the skin from the harmful effects of UV rays and causes the skin to tan or darken. Melanocytes can also form benign (non-cancerous) growths called moles.
Although sunlight is the primary source of UV rays, tanning beds and sun lamps also generate these potentially harmful rays that can damage the DNA in our skin cells and lead to the development of melanoma. DNA damage may have occurred recently—within the last few years—or many years earlier. This is especially true of children and young adults who often get a lot of intense sun exposure.
Melanoma is more likely to develop on the legs in women and on the trunk (chest and back) in men. Having darkly pigmented skin lowers your risk at these more common sites, but anyone can get melanoma on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and under the nails. Melanoma in these less common areas tends to thicken without symptoms or signs and affects a much larger portion of people of color—African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians.
A dangerous misconception about melanoma is that because Caucasians have a higher skin cancer risk (35–45% of all abnormal tissue growth), people of color don’t need to be concerned about this disease.
“Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, regardless of race,” says Jeremy S. Bordeaux, MD, MPH, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist. “Patients with skin of color may believe they aren’t at risk, but that is not the case—and when they do get skin cancer, it may be especially deadly.” African-American patients had the worst overall survival rate, and were also most likely to be diagnosed with melanoma in its later stages, when the disease is more difficult to treat.
Melanoma Risk Factors
It is very important to be aware of melanoma risk factors as early diagnosis increases the odds of a cure. Around 10% of all people with melanoma have a family history (parents, brothers, sisters, or children) of the disease. Other melanoma risk factors include: a personal history of melanoma; freckles; blonde or red hair; a birth mole (within the first two weeks of life); numerous moles and/or atypical moles; at least two moles removed in the past; a shared family lifestyle of frequent sun exposure or multiple sunburns in early childhood; a weakened immune system.
Everyone should be proactive about skin cancer prevention and detection. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and sunglasses with UV-absorbing lenses, and using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
If you have moles, getting routine exams by a dermatologist, along with doing monthly skin self-exams are recommended. If you find a new, unusual, or changing mole, have it checked! Often the first sign of melanoma is a change in the size, shape, color, or feel of a mole, or swelling beyond the border of a mole.
“Skin cancer is most treatable when detected early, so everyone should regularly examine their skin for new or suspicious spots,” Dr. Bordeaux says. A sore that doesn’t heal, redness, or the appearance of a lump or bump are other warning signs.
Don’t let this potentially deadly disease sneak up on you because you don’t think it can happen to you. Skin cancer does not discriminate!
This article included information from the following sources:
Bordeaux, J. S. (2000). Racial Disparities in Melanoma Survival. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology , Volume 75 , Issue 5 , 983 – 991.
Fabulous, M. (2017). Skin Cancer Chooses No Color. NewsBlaze. Issue July 21, 2017.
Bradford, P. T. (2009). Skin Cancer in Skin of Color. Dermatology Nursing / Dermatology Nurses’ Association, 21(4), 170–178.