Did you know the first Monday in May is National Melanoma Day? Don’t bother looking for a card. A melanoma party is unlikely to compete with Memorial Day festivities.
Without a tree, a bunny or a jack-o-lantern, Melanoma Monday is sadly lacking a catchy gimmick. But perhaps this is not the point.
Spending the last 30 years living in Phoenix, I probably need to celebrate Melanoma Monday naked in front of a mirror or in a dermatologist’s office (I apologize for that mental image).
Melanoma comes from genetically damaged melanocytes in the skin. These cells produce melanin, the pigment that determines your skin color and susceptibility to sunburns. You inherited your particular melanocytes makeup from your parents.
Getting back to the desert I call home, ultraviolet light is the main culprit in the development of melanomas. Ultra Violet B wavelength (315 to 400 nanometers) is the most damaging, and there is plenty of that from our intense sun or tanning beds, if you live in the northern latitudes.
This particular wavelength is absorbed deep into the skin, damaging DNA and causing mutations. Unfortunately, most mutations don’t give you laser vision or other useful X- Men talents. Most mutations are harmless, but like Russian roulette, the more DNA you damage the more likely you will experience “unpleasantness.”
We are most susceptible to DNA damage when we are young and don’t know any better. One single blistering sunburn in childhood doubles the risk of melanoma in adulthood. That’s one more thing to bring up during psychoanalysis, when it’s time to clean out the emotional closets.
Since we can’t turn back the clock, and because in our youth our idea of suntan lotion was baby oil, we better have some idea what melanoma looks like. The danger of melanoma is based principally on how early you see it and have it removed. If you have it removed while it’s small and thin, the cure rate is greater than 97 percent.
Most people want to know: what am I looking for? First let’s define normal. The normal mole is small, round, flat and evenly pigmented – a harmless beauty spot. Melanoma is the opposite of all that. The shape is not round, the pigment is not even, the borders are raised, and it grows from small to larger very quickly.
Women most often get melanomas on their legs, and men on their backs, so that’s the first place you should look. Make it a habit to get out of the shower once a month and stand in front of the mirror or your significant other. Once you know what normal looks like, change is much easier to recognize.
It seems every medical student has a melanoma scare. Mine was discovering a black spot on my upper back one evening at midnight. I hightailed it to the hospital immediately to have the resident doctor I was working with look at it.
I was on the Obstetrics ward at the time so I’m not sure the OB resident even knew what melanoma looked like, or even saw very well at that blurry time of night. However, my colleague reassured me everything was fine and I wasn’t dying.
My advice for people of all ages is to make sunblock a habit, and get to know your own skin.
And as my Irish Mom says, “you will live long enough to die of something else!”
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
Image courtesy/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net