Would you be surprised to hear that the most common type of cancer in this country is skin cancer? Research shows that one in five Americans will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer by the age of 70. While the disease develops in people of all ages, seniors are the demographic diagnosed with it most often. The good news is that with early intervention, most forms of skin cancer are treatable.
One type, however, can be especially dangerous: melanoma. Deaths from melanoma are highest among people between the ages of 65 and 84. These age groups account for 50% of deaths caused by melanoma.
To raise awareness about this deadly form of skin cancer, the American Academy of Dermatology designates the first Monday in May as National Melanoma Monday.
8 Common Melanoma Risk Factors
While researchers can’t say for certain why some people develop melanoma and others don’t, there are some factors they believe might play a role:
- Age and gender: Your age and sex can both impact your likelihood of developing melanoma. Before the age of 50, women are at higher risk. After 50, however, men face the greatest risk for melanoma.
- Skin tone: Skin tone can increase a person’s odds for melanoma. People who are fair skinned usually sunburn more easily, putting them in a high-risk category. Caucasians with blond or red hair and blue or green eyes are at greatest risk.
- Personal sunburns: Researchers say having one or more blistering sunburns at any age can increase your odds of developing melanoma. Most skin damage happens during childhood.
- Family medical history: Ten percent of people who are diagnosed with melanoma have a first-degree relative—a parent, child, or sibling—who has also been diagnosed with the disease. Be sure to tell your physician if your family has a history of melanoma.
- Moles: While most moles don’t lead to melanoma, some will. The more moles you have, the higher your risk of developing this serious form of skin cancer. Ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a dermatologist who can conduct a head-to-toe skin exam to identify any concerning moles.
- UV radiation exposure: Tanning beds and sun lamps put off UV radiation. If you have used them, you are at higher risk for melanoma. Be especially vigilant in conducting self-exams and seeing the dermatologist for a check-up.
- Location: Where you live also impacts your chance of developing melanoma. Those living close to the equator or in a higher elevation are at increased risk. Researchers believe it is because they are exposed to higher doses of the sun’s UV rays.
- Weakened immune system: Some chronic health conditions, as well as cancer treatments, can weaken a person’s immune system. Research seems to indicate a person’s risk for melanoma rises when their immune system is compromised.
Learn to Recognize the Warning Signs of Skin Cancer
The American Academy of Dermatology encourages people to conduct self-exams regularly. You might do it on the same day each month so you don’t forget. As you are examining your skin, follow the ABCDEs of skin cancer:
- Asymmetrical: If one half of a mole is unlike the other, it should be evaluated by a physician.
- Border: An irregularly shaped border on a mole can also indicate melanoma.
- Color: A mole or moles that vary in color might be nothing to worry about but could also be an early symptom of melanoma. Check with your doctor to be sure.
- Diameter: Size matters when it comes to moles. Larger skin growths, which dermatologists say are anything larger than 6 mm (the size of a pencil eraser), need to be looked at.
- Evolving: Finally, keep an eye out for spots or moles that change in size or shape or are different from others. This is another potential sign of early melanoma.
As is true of many types of medical conditions, taking steps to protect yourself from disease is essential. Read 7 Skin Cancer Prevention Tips for Older Adults to learn what else you can do to decrease your risk for melanoma and other forms of skin cancer.