Understanding melanoma: The signs, symptoms and risk factors
Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and is responsible for the vast majority of skin cancer deaths.
What is melanoma?
Melanoma affects mainly older people. The average age at diagnosis is 65 years. However, melanoma is also one of the most common types of cancer in young adults, especially in women.
In the early stages, melanoma can be treated successfully, but after metastasis the survival rates drop significantly. Although new therapies have greatly improved the prognosis of patients with metastatic melanoma, not all of them respond to these treatments.
Switzerland has the eighth highest melanoma incidence rate in the world. Around 2’800 people are diagnosed with the disease every year. This makes melanoma the fifth most common type of cancer and accounts for around 7% of all cancer cases in Switzerland.
Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world, ranking first in men and second in women. About 324’600 melanoma skin cancers were diagnosed in 2020 worldwide and the global incidence continues to increase.
Rates have been rising for 30 years
Melanoma arises from pigment-producing cells of the skin, the melanocytes, and can occur in any part of the skin. They can look different and develop over several months or years, also from existing moles. Melanomas often appear as dark to black spots, which can be flat or raised. In men they are more likely to start on the trunk (chest and back) and on the legs in women. Also the face and neck are common sites.
Signs and Symptoms
A new spot on the skin – one that changes in size, shape or color, or one that looks different – is an important warning sign of melanoma. The ABCDE rule outlines the characteristics of moles that may be melanomas and is helpful guidance for monitoring skin changes:
A is for Asymmetry
One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
B is for Border
The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.
C is for Color
The color is not the same throughout (it may have different colors or shades of other colors).
D is for Diameter
the spot larger than 6 millimeters (although melanomas can sometimes be smaller).
E is for Evolving
The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.
Any of these warning signs should be discussed with a doctor, especially if you feel you are at risk for melanoma.
- Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure
- Fair skin, freckles and light hair
- Family history
- Personal history of having melanoma or other skin cancers
- Having a weakened immune system
- Being older
- Being male
- Xeroderma pigmentosum (a rare skin condition that affects the skin’s ability to repair DNA damage)
Ways to lower risk
Melanoma can’t be entirely prevented, but there are ways to lower risk. The number one way to lower risk is to protect against UV rays, e.g. by avoiding recreational outdoor sunbathing and the visit of tanning booths.
Here are a few ways to protect your and your children’s skin:
Stay in the shade between 10am and 4pm.
Wear a Hat
Wear a wide-brimmed had that protects your face, neck and ears.
Choose clothing with a tight knit or weave and avoid shirts that you can see through.
Apply sunscreen (SPF 50) 30 minutes before sun exposure. Cream your skin several times a day when you are swimming or sweating.
Protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them. Pick a pair that will block as close to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays as possible.
Check the UV Index
Check the sun’s UV radiation levels before you leave the house and protect your skin accordingly.