Know Your Skin, Save Your Life

Know Your Skin

Here’s a lifesaving tip: Make a date with your skin once a month. Perform a skin self-exam from the crown of your head down to the soles of your feet. By familiarizing yourself with all of your skin’s birthmarks, sun spots, and moles, you will be more likely to detect any visible changes that could be warning signs of skin cancer. Why worry? Because skin cancers that go undetected can become disfiguring, and can sometimes even spread and become deadly. If melanoma is caught at an early stage, when it is small and localized, the chances of survival are 98 percent. But as a tumor grows thicker and spreads to the lymph nodes, the average survival rate drops to 63 percent. Once melanoma spreads to other organs, average survival drops to 16 percent.

People with 50 or more moles, or any atypical moles (moles that share some characteristics with melanoma), are considered at high risk for melanoma, and are advised to be extra vigilant about checking for skin cancer and seeing their dermatologist regularly. But recent research shows that EVERYONE should be performing monthly skin self-exams. A study of 281 melanoma patients found that those who had fewer than 50 moles and no atypical moles tended to have thicker, more deadly melanomas. One possible explanation is that people with fewer moles are less apt to regularly visit a dermatologist for skin exams and thus are more likely to have their melanoma discovered at later r stages, according to study author Caroline Kim, MD, Director, Pigmented Lesion Clinic at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School.

Here’s another reason to check your skin regularly: on average, the deadliest melanomas don’t show up in preexisting moles. A study of 1,048 melanoma patients found that 70 to 80 percent of melanomas start in previously normal skin with no preexisting lesions, according to research led by David Polsky, MD, professor of dermatologic oncology at New York University School of Medicine. In addition, these melanomas are more likely to be aggressive types that are beyond stage I when diagnosed.

Finally, yet another recent study, led by David Leffell, MD, Section Chief of Dermatologic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology at Yale School of Medicine, shows that even the least dangerous melanomas – in-situ melanomas, which are extremely small and have not invaded below the skin surface – put patients at higher risk for more invasive melanomas and other skin cancers later. In short, any new or changing skin lesion needs to be taken seriously.

Skin cancer is highly treatable, if caught early. Be your first line of defense against the disease. We urge you to take charge of your own health: develop a monthly skin self-exam routine and visit your dermatologist for an annual screening. Parents should begin teaching their children at an early age so they can do it themselves by their teens. Couples can perform a skin exam on one another (and enjoy the bonding), particularly checking the hard-to-see spots like the scalp and back.

Published on November 16, 2015