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Women and Melanoma

By the Cancer Center at El Camino Hospital and the California Skin Institute

In this short Q&A, the Cancer Center at El Camino Hospital and our colleagues at the California Skin Institute take a look at melanoma, the most deadly of all skin cancers. More and more cases of melanoma are appearing in younger women today, and it's important to know the reasons why.

Q: Studies report an alarming increase in the number of young women with melanoma, the most dangerous skin cancer. Is this increase due to better screening or simply that women born after 1970 tanned more than women of previous generations?

A: It seems to be both. Yes, there is more awareness and early detection of melanoma. But sun surveys performed in recent years have shown a greater exposure to the sun among young women today (more time spent tanning) than in past generations. Tanning beds (a known carcinogen) also became popular with young women beginning in the 1980s.

Q: How much has melanoma increased among young women?

A: There is an alarming rise in melanoma in women ages 18 to 39 in the past 40 years. The incidence of melanoma has increased eight-fold from 1970 to 2009, which is a drastic change. Chances are, if you are in that age group, you know someone with melanoma. (Source: Mayo Clinic)

Q. Is melanoma the most common cancer in young people today?

A: For ages 25-29, it is the most common cancer. We are seeing more and more young people with this disease.

Q: Why is melanoma so dangerous? Can’t you just cut it out and be done with it?

A: Melanoma can spread to other parts of your body--such as the brain, lungs and liver. That’s why it’s incredibly tough to treat in the later stages. Early detection is extremely important in survival rate.

Q5: How dangerous are tanning beds?

A: Very dangerous. Exposure to tanning beds before age 30 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent. Tanning beds were recently classified by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen, and banned by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Yet people continue to use them, and that’s a problem. Bottom line: Don’t use tanning beds, tanning booths or sun lamps.

Q: How many women use tanning beds? Is it really that common?

A: According to a CDC survey, a third of white women ages 18 to 21 had done indoor tanning in the previous year, and nearly as many white women 22 to 25 did, despite that tanning devices were classified as carcinogenic in 2009. We’re not sure the word is getting out that these devices are dangerous.

Q: I’m fair-skinned with freckles and many moles. I’ve had more than 100 sunburns in my life and used tanning beds on occasion in high school. My mom has had skin cancer. So, would you say I’ve hit every risk factor, or are there others that put women at risk for developing melanoma?

A: You certainly have most of the major risk factors (unfortunately), but keep in mind that you don’t have to be light-skinned to develop melanoma, and any unusual mole or lesion should be taken seriously and further evaluated by your healthcare provider.

Q: How often should women have their skin checked? And at what age?

A: Check your skin (head to toe) once a month. Have an annual examination by your health care provider beginning at age 20 (it can be part of your regular physical). However, if you have any risk factors (fair skin, family history of melanoma, or certain immune disorders), you may need to see a dermatologist every few months or start earlier than age 20. If you have a mole or growth on your skin you are concerned about, don’t wait. See a physician right away. Moles can change quickly and suddenly become dangerous.

Q: If you tan and don’t burn, is that OK?

A: There is no such thing as a “healthy tan.” A tan is damaging to your skin. That’s one of the most common misconceptions about tanning, and we probably need to do more to educate young people about some of these myths.

Q: What does a potential melanoma look like?

A: The Skin Cancer Foundation has a series of photo images that show the five things to look at (ABCDEs – Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving) that are warning signs for melanoma. See http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/melanoma. When in doubt, see a physician right away.

More Info: For more information on melanoma and other skin cancers, visit the skin cancer section in our health library or the California Skin Institute.

Melanie Norall is a writer for El Camino Hospital who recently underwent a surgical excision for a pre-melanoma that began as a normal mole but then started to evolve into a melanoma. She feels extremely lucky that it was caught early! She thanks Hannah Zare, FNP-C, of the California Skin Institute for her assistance in writing this feature.

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