“What is exciting about melanoma is that in the past few years a lot of drugs have been approved for the treatment of the particular disease,” Feun said. “It used to be considered drug resistant, but over the past five years there have been several new drugs approved for melanoma.”
Confocal microscopy, dermoscopy and total body photos are all methods that can be used to catch melanoma at its earliest stages.
Confocal microscopy, an emerging technology, is an optical imaging technique that allows the skin to be examined without a biopsy. Through confocal microscopy, doctors are able to see the cellular structure and determine if something is wrong. With dermoscopy, doctors are able to examine skin lesions with a dermascope – a magnifying tool that is used to distinguish abnormal lesions on the skin’s surface.
Dr. James Grichnik, director of the Anna Fund Melanoma Program and professor in the department of dermatology at UM, is a leader in the early detection and treatment of melanoma.
According to Grichnik, learning how to identify a melanoma and catching it early is critical. There are about 200,000 moles for every melanoma and three out of four melanomas appear on normal skin.
“If you’re just someone who removes moles thinking that will reduce someone’s risk, it doesn’t really have an impact,” he said. “You have to know what the melanomas look like. By just paying attention, you can save lives.”
As melanoma gets deeper into the skin, it begins learning how to grow in different environments, which increases its chance of spreading. At its earliest stage, melanoma is just a tiny spot. As it gets larger, the spot begins to change and look suspicious.
“What you’re looking for is a pattern that just doesn’t match the other lesions on you,” he said. “And if you’ve got a spot that just doesn’t match the other spots, or a spot that is growing or changing, we should take a look at it.”
Grichnik suggests that once a month, people should examine the front and back of their bodies. He also emphasizes three key points when it comes to sun exposure: time of day, protective clothing and sunscreen.
Sunrays peak at the middle of the day so outdoor activities should be done during dawn and dusk, if possible. Clothing with a tight weave and protection such as hats and umbrellas are ways to keep your skin from being exposed to ultraviolet rays. Lastly, Grichnik recommends sunscreen products that are based on zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. He says these sunscreens don’t tend to break down as quickly and last longer. When it comes to strength of sunscreen, 30 SPF is fine for most people.
“People in the desert do not run around in bikinis and swim trunks,” he said. “They know better. They cover up. They reflect the sun away, and we should be doing the same thing.”
His advice on tanning booths: Don’t.
Grichnik says tanning booths can – and do – cause sun damage, skin damage, photo aging and skin cancer. Use “self tanners” or spray tans instead, he recommends.
Having fair skin, a family history of melanoma, a lot of moles or freckles and peeling sunburns increases your risk of getting melanoma. Also, people who have had a primary melanoma are at an eightfold greater risk of melanoma recurring.