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The ABCDEs of melanoma

Leah Landry

Melanoma has been on the rise in recent years. Why is that and how can we protect ourselves? This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Dr. Lynn Schuchter, chief of hematology-oncology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center, about the most serious form of skin cancer.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Lynn Schuchter.

Melanoma arises in melanocytes, cells that give the skin its pigmentation or color. That’s why moles or other skin irregularities are potential precursors for melanoma, Dr. Schuchter says.

“We don’t completely understand why one of these cells become irregular and break away and become cancerous, but that’s where this type of skin cancer can start,” she said.

What makes melanoma so dangerous is that it is a type of cancer that can metastasize or travel to other parts of the body. However, if it is detected early, it can be treated with surgery.

Those most likely to get melanoma are people who burn easily when they’re exposed to the sun instead of tanning, Dr. Schuchter said. These people usually have light complexions. History matters. If you have a family history of melanoma, or if you have a history of basal cell and squamous cell -- other types of skin cancers -- your risk of contracting melanoma may increase. Sun exposure also increases the risk.

Dr. Schuchter said that melanoma is on the rise with women under 40 because of two important factors: the increased use of tanning salons and the trend of women wearing clothing that exposes more of their skin to the sun. Tanning beds have harmful ultraviolet rays that can cause melanoma. Some states, including New York, require those under 18 to have a parent sign off before they enter tanning beds to decrease the risk. Dr. Schuchter also highlights clothing as an important factor in protecting your skin from the sun.

When it comes to self-detection, Dr. Schuchter suggests using the “ugly duckling” method and look for what stands out or what has changed on your skin. There is also an ABCDE method of checking your skin irregularities, which she highlights saying these are things to look out for:

  • A - asymmetry: the two sides of the mole are not symmetrical
  • B – irregular border: a mole should have an even border and could be melanoma if has a jagged border
  • C - variation in color: melanoma can be dark brown, light brown, blue, black or pink; redness around the mole also could be a sign
  • D – diameter: most melanomas are bigger than five millimeters, or about the size of pencil eraser
  • E – evolution: has the lesion on the skin changed in some way?