Malignant Melanoma Risk Factors: What You Need To Know

In answer to several Family Savvy readers’ questions, Dr. Herzog discusses melanoma risk factors, which vary from person to person.

Question: Dr. Jo, I’ve heard that multiple sunburns during youth doubles one’s risk of melanoma. When I was a teenager (during the 70’s & 80’s), we also did foolish things like sunbathing on metallic mats and baking in iodine and baby oil. Why are more of us not getting melanoma? Would we already have gotten it, or is this something that we might see years down the road? Thanks for your time, Concerned from Indiana


Dr. Jo Herzog dermatologist Family Savvy Dear Concerned,

Thanks for asking such an important question. This is something that we all need to be thinking about, especially those of us that live in areas we we spend a lot of time playing out in the sun.

The Skin Cancer Foundation simplifies all of this by giving a list of facts. These can be found on their website, but I will give you a summary and some of my thoughts.

According to The Skin Cancer Foundation:

  • In the United States, one person dies of melanoma (MM) every 57 minutes.
  • The incidence of MM is increasing steadily, while the incidence of other common skin cancers is decreasing.
  • The chance of surviving from MM was 49% in the 1950’s and increased to 93% in the 1990’s and later.
  • About 86% of MM is sun related.
  • Those who have had MM are more likely to have another one than are others likely to get their first.
  • MM is the most common form of cancer in young adults age 25-29.
  • The risk for MM doubles once you have had more than five sunburns.
  • One or more blistering sunburns in a young child doubles his or her risk.

Now are you convinced yet that you need to use sunscreen, be careful in the sun, and protect your children? The above are statistics, but there are some factors that make one individual more prone to getting MM than another (however no one is risk free).

Risk Factors for Malignant Melanoma

Those that have fair skin (the fairer your skin, the easier you burn), blue or green eyes and blonde or red hair are at increased risk. Those of us that have all of the above are at the highest risk (this would include me if I didn’t have brown eyes).

Having a lot of moles is believed by some to increase one’s risk, but all dermatologists do not agree with this. Some believe that having atypical or “dysplastic” moles increases your risk of MM, while some dermatologists do not believe that such moles even exist.

A family history of MM also increases an individual’s risk. People with impaired immune systems (from chemotherapy, transplant medication, or other), and with certain genetic disorders that involve poor repair of sun/ultra violet damaged cells are also at increased risk. Playing in the sun (recreational sun) might be worse than working in it every day of your life.

The really stupid things that we did as teens like metallic mats and baby oil did increase the incidence of burning and probably contributed to risk as I believe tanning beds do now. However, we can’t change the past, so we have to be more diligent about the future and control what we still can.

Now What? If you are armed with an increasing awareness of the risk factors, there is no need to panic. We can simply need to take charge of the things that we can control. We need to make educated decisions regarding sun exposure. Here are a few that can make a huge difference:

  1. Try to stay out of sun or seek shade from 10 AM to 4 PM.
  2. Wear protective clothing.
  3. Use sunscreen SPF 15 or higher, and re-apply every 2 hours. Don’t forget your ears and neck.
  4. Remember that there is no such thing as a healthy tan~unless it is fake (spray tan or lotion).

If you are still not concerned about being careful in the sun and don’t think that skin cancer can get you, then maybe you need to WORRY ABOUT WRINKLES. The sun causes them too.

Hope this answered your questions.

Dr. Jo

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