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Just in time for Memorial Day: Melanoma Tips and Q&A

Memorial Day traditionally marks the start of summer and, unfortunately, the start of tanning season.

The researchers of Wistar’s Melanoma Research Center work tirelessly to develop new strategies and new therapeutics to treat this deadly disease. This May, Wistar taken part in Melanoma Awareness Month activities to spread the word on melanoma prevention  and celebrate the work of its devoted melanoma researchers.   

According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma will kill over 9,000 people this year in America, alone. While incidence rates of many cancers are decreasing, melanoma rates have been steadily on the increase, affecting more young people than previously seen.

If caught early, the disease is treatable through surgery. If it spreads, as advanced cases of melanoma will, it is frequently deadly. While medical science has made progress with new targeted drugs that aim specifically for melanoma cells, researchers need your support to create better options for patients and their doctors. Consider supporting melanoma research at The Wistar Institute, home to what are collectively the most advanced melanoma laboratory programs in the nation. Donate today.

Wistar would like to remind you that you have the power to lower your risk for melanoma.

1. Protect yourself from the sun. Wear hats, sunglasses, and use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater. There is no degree of tanning that is either safe or protective. "Base" tans are a myth.

2. Indoor tanning is more dangerous than outdoor tanning.  Tanning beds offer more concentrated UV rays--the ultraviolet light that damages your DNA, leading to skin cancer.

3. See a specialist. Make sure to visit a dermatologist and an opthamalogist at least once a year--or more often if you are suspicious of a mole or spot on your skin.

Melanoma Q&A

Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D., is one of Wistar’s most passionate proponents for melanoma prevention. On Monday, May 13, 2013, Dr. Weeraratna took part in a live Q&A with our Facebook followers.

We removed the names and identifying features of our Facebook friends below, but you can read the entire transcript of questions and answers from Dr. Weeraratna on our page. Be sure to Like us.

Q: How can you tell the difference between a regular mole and melanoma?

A: You need to be able to tell the ABCDE's of melanoma- if a mole has 

  • A-asymmetry
  • B- irregular borders
  • C-different color 
  • D-diameter
  • E- evolution- if your mole changes over time. 

If you have any suspicions- see your dermatologist. The ABCDE rule for skin cancer easily lays out how to identify a malignant mole on your body.

Q: How often should I go to the dermatologist for a skin check?

A: Annually, unless you have been previously diagnosed with a skin cancer, in which case your dermatologist will advise you on the frequency.

Q: Are there any activities besides simply being exposed to sunlight that put me at risk for melanoma?

A: While we don't know all of the causes yet, the overwhelming cause of skin cancer in general is exposure to UV irradiation whether in the form of a tanning bed or exposure to too much sun.

Q: Do you think there is a connection between vitamin D and melanoma?

 A: There's a lot of confusion about Vitamin D and melanoma. Here's what we know so far- you need Vitamin D of course, for so many reasons, but fifteen minutes of sunshine a day is thought to be more than enough to produce what you need. Any more than that and you are running the risk of damaging the DNA in your skin while trying to up your vitamin D. Do I think that deficiency of Vitamin D causes melanoma, as some people have claimed? I don't. There's just not enough hard evidence to support that. So get your vitamin D, but remember to protect yourself from the sun after you get your daily dose

Q: What is the most common way for a person to get skin cancer?

A: You just gave me a chance to get on my soapbox. The most common cause of skin cancer is excessive exposure to UV radiation. Bad childhood burns set you up for skin cancer later in life, just as constant tanning whether in a tanning bed (horrendous!) or on the beach damages your skin so badly that it cause changes in the genes that can then drive melanoma. For more information on causes and symptoms visit: http://www.skincancer.org/

Q: I am trying to help my sisters stop tanning!!!

A: That's awesome—let me know if you need me to send them horrendous pictures of ugly melanomas. Remind them it's not just a disease of the skin, but spreads to vital organs if left unchecked. I think that's what most people don't realize.

Q: Is it possible to bring your risk down to just about 0 by getting yearly or twice-yearly checks with a dermatologist?

A: While it's impossible to bring down your risk (that can be brought down by avoiding the sun), you can certainly affect the outcome by getting your "bad" moles diagnosed and removed early.

Q: Can you tell us what your lab is working on now?

A: We are looking at how the mechanisms that make melanomas spread all over your body might be linked to those mechanisms that cause resistance to chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. We are also studying how normal aging causes changes that can accelerate tumor progression.

Q: Is melanoma hereditary?

A: Some of the changes in genes that are associated with melanoma are indeed hereditary, however the majority of genetic changes are somatic, meaning they arise from individual to individual.

Photo Credit: Even People by Michael Hooper used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license (CC BY 2.0)