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Melanoma the Most Serious Form of Skin Cancers

Though certainly not the most common form of skin cancer, melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. According to the American Melanoma Foundation, the incidence of melanoma has been steadily increasing for the last three decades.

The most common form of cancer for young adults 25 to 29 years old, melanoma can affect just the skin or spread to other parts of the body, including organs and bones. Because the incidence of melanoma is on the rise, it helps men and women, and even children and teens, to learn about melanoma in the hopes of preventing the onset of this potentially fatal form of skin cancer.

What causes melanoma?

Normal skin cells become abnormal when people spend too much time in the sun. Once skin cells become abnormal, they can quickly grow out of control and attack the tissue around them. People who live in regions where sunlight is more intense, such as the southern United States, are more likely to develop melanoma than those who live in regions where sunlight is not as intense. In addition, parents should be especially mindful of their child's sun exposure. As the AMF notes, melanoma has been linked to excessive sun exposure in the first 10 to 18 years of life.

Does melanoma run in families?

Melanoma does tend to run in families, and people with abnormal moles might have a family history of melanoma. While these atypical moles, which can be smooth or appear rough, don't cause cancer by themselves, having them could indicate a family history of melanoma. People with such moles should be especially protective of their skin when spending time in the sun.

What are the symptoms of melanoma?

Melanoma often manifests itself in changes in a mole or other growth on the skin. When a mole changes in shape, size or color it could be a sign of melanoma. Typically, however, melanoma grows in unmarked skin and can be found anywhere on the body. Where melanoma forms often depends on gender. In men, melanoma is most likely to develop on the upper back. For women, melanomas often develop on the legs.

A flat, brown or black mole with uneven edges, melanoma usually has an irregular shape, with one half not matching the other. Melanomas can change color, ooze or bleed, become crusty, and appear lumpy or rounded.

Is melanoma preventable?

Melanoma might not be entirely preventable, but men, women and children can take steps to reduce their risk significantly. Melanoma has been found on parts of the body that have never been exposed to the sun, but the best way to protect against melanoma is to be careful when out in the sun. Avoiding exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays is the most effective preventive step, and people can do that in a number of ways.

* Stay out of the sun in peak UV hours. UV rays are at their strongest and most harmful between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Stay out of the sun during these hours as much as possible.

* Avoid tanning salons. Researchers do feel there is a link between the growing popularity of tanning salons and the rise in melanoma cases. The AMF notes that the rate of melanoma incidence in young white women, who are among the most frequent tanning salon customers, is rising rapidly.

* Wear protective clothes when in the sun. Long-sleeved shirts, protective hats that shade the face and long pants are some of the clothing options that can reduce risk of melanoma.

* Wear sunscreen every day. Sunscreen should have a sun protection factor, or SPF, of at least 15. Apply sunscreen every day, and look for products that protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

What if I am diagnosed with melanoma?

Melanoma diagnosis is not a death sentence. In fact, melanoma is staged on a scale of 1 to 4. A stage 1 melanoma is less severe, while a stage 4 indicates the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. According to the American Cancer Society, when melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is 99 percent. A person's chance of surviving a melanoma diagnosis greatly increases the earlier it is detected, so men and women who spend ample time in the sun should routinely inspect their skin for any abnormal moles. Parents, too, should make it a point to inspect their children's skin after exposure to the sun.

To learn more about melanoma, visit the American Melanoma Foundation at www.melanomafoundation.org.