Know Your Risk

Skin cancer is one of the most common form of all cancers. Though accounting for less than 5% of all skin cancers, melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer responsible for the majority of skin cancer attributed deaths.

The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 80,000 new melanomas diagnosed in 2013 with incidence rates on the rise for the last 30 years. This year, almost 9,000 people are expected to die of melanoma. It is well established that early detection and treatment of melanoma are essential for the best outcome.

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Did you know that melanoma is one of the easiest cancers to prevent? But prevention begins with knowing your risk and taking steps to reduce that risk. Here are a few tips on knowing and reducing your risk for melanoma.

Skin Type

Individuals with fair skin, blue or green eyes, and red or blond hair (skin type I) are at higher risk for melanoma due to how their skin reacts to UV exposure. This comes from early research done by Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick, a Harvard Medical School dermatologist. He developed a scale in which he characterized six skin types based on how they reacted to UV exposure. See the chart below to know which skin type you have. This scale is widely used by dermatologists today.

Fitzpatrick Classification

The higher risk skin types are I – III. People with skin types IV through VI are less likely to get melanoma, however, when they do, it is typically very aggressive. That is why everyone, regardless of skin type, should take precautions to protect themselves from UV exposure.

Family History and Genetics

Another factor in developing melanoma is family history. If you have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) with melanoma you are two to three times more likely to develop the disease than the general population. If you have many first-degree family members with melanoma, your risk of developing increases to 30 – 70 times higher. Approximately 10% of individuals with melanoma have a family history of the disease.

Specific gene mutations pass along a genetic susceptibility to melanoma. If a parent has this mutation, a child will have a 50% chance of inheriting it. Gene mutations have been found in 10% to 40% of families with a high rate of melanoma. Many people who inherit this genetic susceptibility, however, never develop melanoma.

Individuals with these gene mutations that have 50+ common moles (small growths on the skin that are usually pink, tan or brown and have a distinct edge) or five atypical moles have what is called dysplastic nevus syndrome. When this syndrome is inherited and there is a family history of melanoma, people are said to have Familial Multiple Mole and Melanoma or FAMM. People with FAMM have a very high risk of melanoma.

UV Radiation Exposure

UV radiation exposure is the most frequent and the most preventable risk factor for developing melanoma. Whether it is from the sun or indoor tanning beds, it is well-established that this is the greatest environmental factor for developing melanoma. Although one or more severe, blistering sunburns during childhood increase your risk, so does ongoing exposure during your lifetime. One bad sunburn before the age of 16 can actually double your lifetime risk of melanoma. Living and/or working in sunny climates or at high altitudes adds to the risk. The amount of radiation produced by a tanning bed during indoor tanning is similar to the sun and, in some cases, might be stronger. Studies have found a 75% increase in the risk of melanoma in individuals who have been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning. Even occasional use of tanning beds can triple a person’s risk.

Other Risk Factors

Other risk factors for melanoma include a weakened or suppressed immune system and contact with cancer-causing chemicals. Individuals can have a weak immune system because of having a different type of cancer, the AIDS virus or an organ transplant. Through work, they can come into contact with cancer-causing chemicals such as arsenic, coal tar, creosote, pitch or radium.

Know The Facts

Know Your Risk

With these steps you can reduce, prevent and detect melanoma early.

Myriad Genetics at J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference

Paul J. Diaz, president and chief executive officer, Bryan Riggsbee, chief financial officer, and Dale Muzzey, chief scientific officer, presented at the 41st annual J.P. Morgan (JPM) Healthcare Conference.