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DEAR MAYO CLINIC: When I was in my teens and 20s, I regularly used a tanning bed. I am now 43 and very worried about melanoma, so I go to a dermatologist every year for a skin check. I have numerous moles, but the skin check only takes about five minutes. Is this enough time for a thorough evaluation? What are they looking for? What should I be looking for on my own?
ANSWER: You’re wise to keep an eye on your skin. Being evaluated by a dermatologist once a year and checking your skin regularly are two excellent steps you can take to catch melanoma and other types of skin cancer early. The sooner skin cancer is found, the better the chances are of curing it.
Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. It develops in cells called melanocytes that produce melanin — the pigment that gives your skin its color. The exact cause of all melanomas isn’t clear, but exposure to ultraviolet, or UV, radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps and beds increases your risk of developing the disease.
The number of melanoma cases has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, especially in middle-age women. The increase may be linked to the rise of tanning bed use in the 1980s, when many women who are now in their 40s and 50s were in their teens.
If melanoma goes unchecked and spreads, it can be very difficult to treat. But if you catch melanoma early, it’s often curable. That’s why it’s so important to be familiar with your skin and report any changes to your dermatologist right away, especially if you’ve had a significant amount of exposure to tanning beds in the past. Get into the habit of checking your skin once a month. In particular, watch for new moles appearing that haven’t been there before.
Know the ABCs of skin cancer, too, and report any of them to your dermatologist. A is for asymmetry: one half of a mole looks different from the other half. B is border: the borders of a mole are uneven, jagged or scalloped. C is for color. The color of a mole is different from one area to another. Specifically, if you see colors of the U.S. flag — red, white or blue — within a mole, that can be a concerning change.
It’s also important to note a mole’s size. If you have a mole larger than about a quarter of an inch across — or about the size of a pencil eraser — have it checked. If there is a change in the size, shape, color or height of a mole, or if you develop symptoms such as bleeding, itching or tenderness, that should be evaluated, as well.
Keep in mind, too, there are other kinds of skin cancer in addition to melanoma, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers tend to look like pink, red or scaly spots on your skin that do not go away on their own.
Although the annual skin check you get from your dermatologist may not last long, it is a critical part of catching skin cancer early. Dermatologists specialize in skin disorders and can often spot problem areas on the skin quickly. That’s particularly true after you have your first skin assessment, which may take a little longer than your follow-up visits.
Of course prevention is also key. Protect your skin as much as you can. Whenever possible, stay out of the sun during the middle of the day when UV light is the strongest. When you are outdoors, use plenty of sunscreen in all seasons, and put it on your skin often. The sun protection factor, or SPF, of your sunscreen should be at least 30. Never use a tanning light or a tanning bed, as they can drastically increase your chances of melanoma. — Jerry Brewer, M.D., Dermatology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.