Melanoma is a serious and life-threatening form of cancer that begins in the skin but can spread rapidly if not treated early. We sat down with board-certified oncologist Dr. Faye Yin, an oncologist at Jersey City Medical Center, to learn more about this disease, its causes and risk factors, and why it’s important to protect yourself from excessive sun exposure — even during the cold winter months.
What are the main risk factors for developing melanoma?
Ultraviolet, or UV, light exposure is the major risk factor. Melanoma is associated with both UVB rays, which are present in sunlight, and UVA rays, which are generated by tanning beds. Other risk factors include the presence of moles on the skin. Most are benign, but those with excessive moles should consult a dermatologist, especially if they observe any changes. Often, a mole will be removed as a precautionary measure. Age is also a risk factor; the older the person, the higher the risk. People with fair skin, freckles, and lighter hair are also more susceptible, which is why melanoma is more common in white and light-skinned people. Other risk factors include family history and the presence of a weakened immune system. Those with xeroderma pigmentosum, or XP, a rare genetic disorder, are particularly at risk because the condition affects the ability of skin cells to repair themselves after UV light exposure.
What should people do if they have any of these risk factors?
As with most risk factors impacting health, there are things you can change, and things you cannot. You can’t change your skin color or family history, and you can’t avoid getting older. But you can limit your exposure to UV rays. A popular catchphrase that I tell my patients, which has been promoted by the American Cancer Society, is ‘Slip, Slop, Slap, and Wrap.’ Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat, and wrap on some sunglasses. I also recommend that people avoid using tanning beds and sun lamps. Teaching children about sun safety is especially important, because they tend to spend more time outdoors and can burn more easily. It is also important for people with risk factors to pay closer attention to their skin. Keep an eye out for abnormal moles or other skin features that appear to be unusual or changing over time, and consult a dermatologist if necessary.
Can sunlight still be dangerous during winter?
Yes — whether you’re skiing or just going for a walk, it is great to enjoy the sun and being outdoors in the winter, but it’s just as important to protect yourself from excess sun exposure in winter as it is in summer. Harmful ultraviolet rays are present year-round. They can even filter through dark cloud coverage to reach your skin, increasing your risk of melanoma. Some people may experience a bad sunburn on a winter vacation, especially if they ski in high altitudes, because UV rays are usually more intense in higher regions with a thinner atmosphere. When you’re outside, any uncovered areas of your body are exposed to UV rays. So, it’s important to wear sunscreen even in the winter months.
Is smoking a risk factor for developing melanoma, and if so, is it mostly if you’re currently smoking (for instance, what if you smoked for years and stopped?)
As an oncologist, every day I tell my patients: don’t smoke! Smoking is a contributing factor for many cancers, and I believe that it also affects overall skin health; I can often look at someone’s skin and tell whether they smoke. That having been said, we don’t have evidence that smoking directly contributes to melanoma. But I always encourage patients not to smoke to stay healthy and minimize their cancer risk.
Why does having a weakened immune system count as a risk factor for melanoma?
Having a weakened immune system increases the risk of melanoma and other cancers. I have worked with many patients whose immune systems have been compromised, either by illness or in some cases due to medical treatment for other conditions. For example, immunosuppressive drugs are used after stem cell and organ transplants, to prevent the body from rejecting the transplant. Certain diseases also compromise the immune system, such as HIV. A weakened immune system increases cancer risk for two reasons. First, because the body has less ability to detect and destroy cancer cells. And secondly, because the body is more susceptible to infections that may lead to cancer.
Is gender a risk factor? If so, do we know why?
In the United States, men typically have a higher rate of melanoma than women, though this varies by age. Before age 50, the risk is higher for women, and after age 50, the risk is higher in men. We believe that this discrepancy relates to the fact that men are likely to spend more time in the sun over the course of their lifetimes. I also think that women are more likely to wear sunscreen than men, so this may play a role. In addition, men tend to have thicker skin with less fat beneath it and more collagen, and some research shows that this can make the skin more susceptible to sunlight damage. Also, some studies have shown that estrogen, which is more prevalent in women, can increase resistance to melanoma.
Are older people at higher risk for melanoma?
The risk of melanoma increases as you age. The average age for a melanoma diagnosis is age 65. But melanoma is not uncommon even among those younger than age 30. In fact, it is one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially young women. Melanoma is also more common in younger people whose families have a history of melanoma.
How does having a family history of having melanoma impact someone?
Family history is definitely a melanoma risk factor; the risk is higher among those who have one or more first-degree relatives who have had melanoma. About 10 percent of people diagnosed with melanoma have a family history. Families tend to have shared lifestyle habits, such as more frequent sun exposure, and in addition they typically have similar skin types and share certain genetic characteristics. You can’t change your skin color or your genes, but you can change some factors. If you know that you are higher risk, and have a family history, pay close attention to your skin. Avoid excessive sunlight and tanning beds, and consult a dermatologist if you have concerns.
Why is UV light exposure a risk factor?
Numerous studies have shown that sun and UV light exposure is a major melanoma risk factor, especially for children and teens. Research shows that early sun exposure can damage the DNA in skin cells. Melanocytes are the cells that produce melanin, which gives skin its pigmentation, and damaging these cells can start the path to melanoma. Melanoma commonly occurs on the thighs of women, and on the trunks of men, as well as on arms and faces, which are the areas that most often receive chronic sun exposure in young people. In addition to limiting UV light exposure, people should also examine their own skin at least monthly, especially if there are high risk factors. If you see something unusual, such as a large mole or a spot you’re not sure about, I will often encourage patients to take a photograph of it. You might not notice small changes over time because you get accustomed to them. But if you take a picture of a spot on your skin and compare it a month or a few months later, and you see a change, you should see a dermatologist.