Is skin cancer hereditary? My 63-year-old sibling passed away from melanoma last year and I am wondering if I am at higher risk.
While long-term sun exposure and sunburns are the biggest risk factors for melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – having a sibling or parent with melanoma does indeed increase your risk, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Each year, around 100,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma and about 7,500 people will die from it. While anyone can get melanoma, those most often diagnosed are age 50 and older and of Caucasian descent. High-risk individuals include people with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, fair skin, freckles, moles, a family history of skin cancer and those who had blistering sunburns in their youth.
The best way to guard against melanoma and other skin cancers, such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas, is to protect yourself from the sun. Additionally, if you are over the age of 50, it is best to get a yearly, full-body skin exam done by a dermatologist, especially if you are high risk.
Self-examinations done every month or so may help detect early problems. Using mirrors check the front and backside of your entire body, including the tops and undersides of your arms, hands, between your toes, the soles of your feet, your neck, scalp and buttocks.
Be on the lookout for new growths, moles that have changed, or sores that do not heal, and follow the ABCDE rule when examining suspicious moles:
- Asymmetry: One half of a mole doesn't match the other.
- Border: The border is blurred or ragged.
- Color: The mole has uneven colors, often shades of brown, tan or black, with patches of pink, red, white or blue.
- Diameter: The lesion is new or at least a quarter inch in diameter.
- Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape or color.
For more self-examination tips and pictures of what to look for, you can use your favorite search engine or use a skin cancer detection app. In the spring and summer, there are also a variety of places that offer free skin cancer screenings performed by volunteer dermatologists across the U.S.
Although you cannot change your skin or family history, there are some proven strategies that can help protect against melanoma.
For starters, when you go outside, apply broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher, water-resistant sunscreen on both sunny and cloudy days. Check with your healthcare provider for the best type for your skin. Additionally, seek the shade when rays are most intense – generally between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
You can also protect your skin by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and pants when possible. The best clothing options are tightly woven fabrics that help prevent the sun's rays from reaching your skin. You can wash your clothes in a laundry additive to provide invisible shield sun protection. You can buy a variety of lightweight clothing and hats that offer maximum UV protection in their fabric. Use your favorite search engine to look for these types of products.
If caught early, melanoma is curable. However, if it is not caught early, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal. Standard early treatment for melanoma is surgical removal. In advanced cases, however, immunotherapies and targeted therapies have shown positive results, as well as chemotherapy and radiation.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.