A couple of years ago, when I wrote a magazine story about skin cancer, I was horrified to discover that the deadliest kind, melanoma, was becoming an epidemic among young people. Now new research from the Mayo Clinic raises the stakes even further. The study found that the incidence of melanoma in women 19-39 has increased eightfold from 1970 to 2009, and fourfold among men of the age group.
Make no mistake; melanoma can be deadly. It accounts for just 3% of all skin cancers but 75% of the deaths. But there's good news. If it's diagnosed early and removed, the cure rate is 99%. Here's how to keep your kids safe (and remember, what's good for your kids is good for you too).
Here Comes the Sun
You don't have to look far to see why melanoma is on the march. Tanning is to blame, whether it's on a sun-struck beach or in the glowing interior of a tanning bed. Both expose you to ultraviolet radiation, which causes cellular changes that increase the risk of cancer.
The whole tanning bed scene is so dangerous that The International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated them a known carcinogen. So if your kids feel compelled to be bronze, tell them to use a self-tanner lotion, not a tanning bed.
An Ounce of Prevention
When skin cancer does strike, early detection is the name of the game. Once melanoma has advanced, the cure rate drops to 15%. So wear protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats, and use sunscreen with a high SPF. Do regular skin checks so you become familiar with freckles and moles and can recognize any changes (and know that cancers can grow in unlikely places - even behind your ears or between your toes). Follow the ABCDE guide for melanoma: Asymmetrical shape; irregular border, changes in color, diameter (be alert for growth in a mole larger than a quarter inch); and evolution (changes in a mole over time). See your dermatologist once a year for a full-body skin check.
At-home checks work. I know. I discovered a melanoma on my husband's back; that was more than a decade ago and he's doing fine. When his doctor removed the mole, he told me, "You saved his life." That's a mighty good feeling.
For more information: The Mayo Clinic site has an excellent briefing on melanoma, including a slide show that will help you identify suspicious moles.