How Does Your Family’s History of Melanoma Affect You?

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May 12, 2017
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Is Melanoma Genetic?

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It forms in the cells that produce melanin, which is the substance responsible for your skin’s color. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV rays) from the sun or tanning beds increases the risk of developing any skin cancer. In the case of melanoma, experts say there’s also a strong link between genetics (your family history) and your risk of developing melanoma.

Family History and Genetic Factors

If one or more of your parents, siblings or children develop melanoma, you have a higher risk of developing melanoma than a person with no family history of the disease. Experts aren’t sure whether the increased risk is because close relatives tend to have similar lifestyles (such as spending lots of time outside in the sun together) or if a genetic mutation is responsible. Regardless of why a family history of melanoma raises the risk of developing the disease, knowing that there’s a link means you should take precautions. That can include reducing the skin cancer risk factors you can control and paying close attention to changes in your skin.

Am I at Risk for Melanoma?

Everyone is at risk for melanoma, regardless of family history. Some people with a family history of the disease never get it. Some people with no family history will get it.

Fortunately, there are concrete steps you can take to reduce your melanoma risks, including:

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  • Avoiding tanning beds.
  • Limiting your time outdoors when the sun’s rays are strongest (between 10 am and 4 pm).
  • Applying sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher liberally 15-30 minutes before any sun exposure and reapplying every 2 hours throughout the day, after toweling, becoming sweaty or getting wet.
  • Checking the expiration date of your sunscreen – do not use if it’s expired.
  • Following directions for sunscreen application on babies less than 6 months old.
  • Wearing protective clothing, hats and sunglasses so sunlight can’t reach your skin.

Early Detection Increases Survival Rates for Melanoma

Melanoma is responsible for 75% of all skin cancer deaths. A person’s risk of dying from melanoma increases the deeper the cancer grows. Melanomas that aren’t detected early and are allowed to grow can spread to other parts of the body, and because melanoma is an aggressive cancer, it spreads quickly – usually within three to 18 months from the time it becomes noticeable.

Frequent skin exams are especially important for people with a family history of melanoma. Once a melanoma has spread (doctors use the term “metastasized”), the cancer is much more difficult to treat. That’s why it’s so important for everyone to examine their skin and have their skin examined regularly by a doctor. These exams give you and your doctor an opportunity to spot suspicious growths on the skin early. A melanoma that is found early can be removed from the skin before it is able to spread.

Skin Self Exams: What to Look For

Examining your skin monthly allows you to become familiar with the location and appearance of your freckles, moles and other pigmented areas. Whenever you detect changes to existing marks on your body, or new growths or pigmented areas that look unusual or are growing quickly, you should have them checked out by a dermatologist.

Doctors recommend remembering the ABCDEs of melanomas when you’re checking your skin:

  • Asymmetry. If you draw an imaginary line through the middle of a melanoma, the two halves would not match.
  • Border. The edges of a melanoma are usually uneven, fuzzy or jagged.
  • Color. Melanomas change colors and are often a combination of black, brown and tan.
  • Diameter. Melanomas may grow larger than the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Elevation. Once a mark on your skin becomes raised or thicker, it is a serious red flag indicating a melanoma may be spreading and should be evaluated by a doctor immediately.

Melanoma can be deadly. Whether you have a family history of the disease or not, you’re at risk. Get to know your skin so you’ll know when something simply doesn’t seem right, and if you notice any changes of your skin, it is best to visit your doctor or dermatologist. Arizona Oncology has locations throughout the state if your provider determines a referral is needed.