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How to lower your risk of melanoma

Rates of this cancer have doubled in 30 years. Sunscreen and other sun-protection strategies can help protect you.

Published: June 19, 2015 06:00 AM

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If there’s any good news about skin cancer, is that the deadliest forms, melanoma, is also the rarest of the three types of the disease. But according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), melanoma rates have doubled over the last three decades, increasing from 11.2 cases per 100,000 people in 1982 to 22.7 per 100,000 in 2011—when more than 65,000 melanoma cancers were diagnosed. It’s still less common than basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, but the increase in melanoma is clearly cause for concern.

Since more than 90 percent of melanomas are due to cell damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, the simple solution is prevention: Protect yourself from UV exposure by wearing a broad-rimmed hat and clothes that cover your skin, find some shade if you’re outside (especially in the middle of the day when rays are most intense), and apply broad-spectrum sunscreen to all exposed skin. Daily sunscreen use cut melanoma risk in half in one published study from researchers in Australia.

Learn how to boost your sun protection smarts and find our sunscreen ratings in our sun safety guide.

On a broader level, the CDC recommends that communities increase shade on playgrounds, pools, and other public spaces, and encourage education about sun safety and skin protection. Another important step: restricting the availability and use of indoor tanning by minors. Studies have found a 59 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those who go to tanning salons. The effect of these measures could be powerful, preventing an estimated 230,000 melanoma cases over the next 15 years.

As with many forms of cancer, early detection is key with melanoma. That’s why everyone should alert their doctor if they notice a mole that begins to grow or change significantly in any way or if they develop a new “outlier” mole— one that looks different from others they have.

And if you’re at increased risk of melanoma, be sure to talk to your doctor about the best screening strategy. Factors that raise your chances of developing the disease include having a family history of melanoma, a personal history of frequent sunburns, or a large or increasing number of precancerous moles. Being fair-skinned or heavily freckled also increase the risk. When identified early (before the disease has spread to nearby lymph nodes or to other parts of the body), the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 98 percent. And that’s very good news!

Karyn Repinski

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