Learning about Melanoma
- Sarah Lee, a 29-year-old journalist for BBC, is undergoing treatment for melanoma after more than one doctor dismissed her concerns about a mole on her scalp. Thankfully, her persistence got Lee to the correct diagnosis and effective treatment.
- Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the same cells that give your skin, hair and eyes their color. Ninety percent of melanomas are caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun, so it’s important to protect your skin with things like sunscreen and clothing.
- Paying attention to moles or growths on your skin is an easy way to look out for melanoma since changes to a mole you’ve had for a while or developing a new growth you don’t remembering having on your skin could be signs of of this cancer, according to SurvivorNet’s experts.
The 29-year-old BBC journalist first noticed the mole on her scalp last summer after taking a photo of her head to determine if she needed highlights for her hair.Read More
After calling her doctor, Lee went to a dermatologist with a referral. Unfortunately, the cancerous mole did not seem problematic to the medical professional.
“The skin specialist told me three things: it didn’t look unusual, I was too young to have skin cancer, and that it was almost impossible to get melanoma on the scalp, as the hair acts as a barrier to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation,” she wrote. “Little did I know that all three of these statements were wrong and would soon put my life in danger.”
After noticing that her mole had grown and multiplied five months later, Lee went back to her doctor in search of answers. Even still, her doctor thought the moles were the result of “a fungus that would go away on its own.” Thankfully, though, Lee did not stop there. She sought out a different doctor because she knew something was wrong.
“In December, a dermatologist finally ordered the urgent removal of the moles for a biopsy,” she wrote. “After a Christmas and new year of high anxiety, the results came in.
“I had stage three malignant nodular melanoma.”
Lee – a young, sunscreen-user who grew up in rainy Wales and avoided tanning beds – was shocked. And beyond frustrated that it took so many appointments before the medical professionals she trusted came to the correct, very serious conclusion.
For treatment, she underwent an eight-hour operation to remove 24 lymph nodes and tissue from the left side of her neck since her cancer had spread. Scans eventually revealed that she no longer had any signs of cancer in her body, but she’s still on a 12-month treatment plan of taking the targeted cancer drugs dabrafenib and trametinib to prevent the melanoma from returning.
“Having cancer at the age of 29 has been a terrifying surprise, but it has taught me to laugh harder, to live happier and to love bigger,” she wrote. “It’s also taught me never to underestimate sun damage… As I keep saying, it’s not just skin cancer and it can happen to anyone, anywhere – even on your scalp.
“The skin is our biggest organ – please look after it. Wear a hat, slather on that factor 50, stay in the shade, get your moles checked. And push for a second, third or fourth opinion if you must.”
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the same cells that give your skin, hair and eyes their color. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 99,780 new melanomas will be diagnosed in the United States in 2022.
And while the ACS says the risk of melanoma increases as people age with the average age of diagnosis being 65, the disease is not uncommon among those younger than 30. In fact, it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults (especially young women).
The disease can develop from an existing mole or appear as a dark or pink growth on the skin even in places on the body that never see the sun. It’s also known to be the deadliest form of skin cancer.
“Melanomas are the deadliest type of skin cancer because they have a tendency to spread to other parts of the body,” explains Dr. Anna Pavlick, a medical oncologist with Weill Cornell Medicine who specializes in treating skin cancer.
Paying Attention to Your Skin
Keeping an eye on the moles or growths on your skin is an easy way to keep an eye out for melanoma. Changes to a mole you’ve had for a while or developing a new growth you don’t remembering having on your skin could be signs of this cancer, according to SurvivorNet’s experts.
Dr. Cecilia Larocca of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute gives SurvivorNet an overview of things to look out for with moles using the ABCDE self-screening method:
- Asymmetrical moles: “If you drew a line straight down the center of the mole, would the sides match?”
- Borders that are “irregular, jagged, not smooth.” It can also stand for bleeding.
- Colors: “Multiple distinct colors in the mole.”
- Diameter: “Larger than 6mm, about the size of a pencil head eraser.”
- Evolution: “This may be the most important,” she says. “Anything that is changing over time such as gaining color, losing color, painful, itching, hurting, changing shape, etc.”
Spots on our skin are often harmless, but it’s still important to keep an eye on them and reach out to your doctor if you see any changes or find a growth anywhere on your skin that looks suspicious.
Protecting Yourself from Melanoma
Ninety percent of melanomas are caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This means excessive time in the sun – even as a child – puts you at a higher risk.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Dendy Engelman from MDCS Dermatology in New York shared the top five things you can do to avoid skin cancer:
- Avoid sun during peak hours, which is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect the tops of our heads, the tops of our ears and the delicate area around the eye.
- Wear at least SPF 30 sunscreen and make sure to reapply every two hours or after excessive sweating or swimming.
- Have yearly skin checks (with a professional), because it’s difficult to evaluate areas all over the body.
- Avoid tanning beds. There are no “good” tanning beds, and they can significantly increase your risk of melanoma.