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Tue, May 16, 2017 at 05:00 AM

ABC's of what to watch for with Melanoma

May is Skin Cancer Awareness month

Everyone should know that it can strike young people, adults and the elderly. The rate of melanoma – which is by far the most deadly type of skin cancer – has doubled since the 1980s, but that may be an indication of better detection rates and more awareness.


“Skin cancer can be a small event or a major event,” Dermatologist Dr. Josh Wharton told a group of cancer survivors at their monthly support group meeting.

The statistics on skin cancer are blistering:

  • Everyone is at risk for skin cancer. Twenty percent of the population will be diagnosed. 
  • The head and neck are the most common areas to develop skin cancer but it can grow on any area of the skin exposed to the sun. 
  • Ears and lips have the highest rate of re-occurrence.  
  • Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma – the most common skin cancers – spread slowly and are not life-threatening but can be disfiguring.

“If caught early, these are very treatable,” Dr. Wharton said.


Unfortunately statistics for melanoma are even worse:

  • Any area of the body – not only those exposed to the sun – can develop melanoma. 
  • The most common areas for melanoma are on the back for men and on the legs for women. 
  • Melanoma spreads via the lymph nodes to internal organs. 
  • Before it spreads, the survival rate is 98 percent. 
  • One American dies every hour from melanoma. 
  • Melanoma deaths account for 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths. 
  • Most at risk are men over 50. 

“Melanoma is really a wild card,” Dr. Wharton said. “It does not act like most cancers.”

Despite the scary facts surrounding skin cancer, Dr. Wharton said research is making strides all the time. 

“I’m excited about what the future holds,” he said. 

The most important thing, of course, is prevention, he emphasized.

“There is no safe way to tan,” he warned. “It all damages the skin.” 

Sunburn has a cumulative effect, meaning that a lifetime of burning leads to cells being so damaged they cannot repair themselves. 

Other smart ways to protect your skin include:

  • Wearing a brimmed hat and protective clothing when outside. Some hats even have built-in sunscreen. 
  • Wear broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Apply liberally.
  • Throw out expired sunscreen. 
  • Avoid the sun especially between the hours of 10 am – 2 pm. 

“Remember, if your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade,” he said. 

Dr. Wharton taught the ABCs of what to watch out for with melanoma:

  • Asymmetry - One half doesn't match the appearance of the other half.
  • Border irregularity - The edges are ragged, notched or blurred.
  • Color variability - The color (pigmentation) is not uniform. Shades of tan, brown and black are present. Dashes of red, white and blue add to a mottled appearance.
  • Diameter greater than one-quarter inch - About the size of a pencil eraser. Any growth of a mole should be evaluated.
  • Enlargement - A change in the size, shape, symptoms (such as itching or tenderness), surface (especially bleeding) or color of a mole.

Any of these should be reported to your doctor immediately. 

Dr. Wharton opened Dermatology of North Alabama in Guntersville in 2010. Call (256)571-8770 for appointments. 

Marshall Cancer Care Center’s LIFE group is open to all cancer survivors. It meets on the second Tuesday of each month at noon in the classroom of the Professional Center next door to the Marshall Cancer Care Center, just south of Cracker Barrel in Guntersville. Lunch is provided and there is no charge. A reservation is required, and can be made by calling (256)571-8000.