With the beginning of summer looming and its increase in outdoor activities, May has become the self-proclaimed Melanoma Awareness Month among the different groups and societies that support melanoma patients and survivors. Monday, May 6th, is the day you will see black ribbons, Facebook pictures with black sashes, and the like (you'll also see orange; apparently there's a melanoma color debate going on. As a Flyers fan, I'm fine with either, or both). So, while I've written a ton about dealing with melanoma, let's go over what skin cancer and melanoma are – and why you need to know how to prevent them.
Skin cancer is the general term for any cancer originating in the epidermis. Besides melanoma, that includes are Basal Cell and Squamous Cell cancers, named for the layers of skin they originate from. While "skin cancer" does not crack the top 20 cancers in terms of mortality rate, it is widely cited as the most common form of cancer diagnosed in the United States, with an estimated one million new diagnosed cases.
Melanoma, while a small (5%) subset of overall skin cancers, are by far the most deadly. There will be an estimated 9,500 melanoma deaths in this country in 2013 – that's a little more than one per HOUR. Melanoma has a great five-year survival rate (98%) if detected early, before any spreading occurs. That number falls drastically to 15% when the disease metastasizes – i.e. spreads to different organs, the fun I am dealing with right now. So:
Skin cancer in general = high rate of occurrence, but low mortality rate.
Melanoma = subset of skin cancer with a drastically increased mortality rate if left untreated.
A pretty easy equation – you've got a decent chance of getting skin cancer in your lifetime, and an even better chance of surviving IF you catch it early. There are certainly other cancers that are more deadly and just as preventable (yes, I am talking to you, with the pack of cigarettes and the list of bad excuses), but melanoma is one of the few that a few minor adjustments can make such a big difference. Quitting smoking can be difficult; any idiot can apply sunscreen and wear a hat if they are going to be outdoors for an extended period of time.
Most of a person's skin damage will occur before they turn 18. Just one bad sunburn by that age doubles the chance of skin cancer at some point in a person's life. When you realize that the foundation of skin cancer prevention are rooted in the fun, formative years on the beach, in the playground, or at the ball field, melanoma awareness is not just for you, it is for your entire family. That DOESN'T get you adults off the hook; it just stresses that the behavior your kids see will be emulated in their pre-teen and teenage years, especially when they don't have Mom and Dad there to remind them to apply (and reapply) sunblock, or wear that hat and long sleeve shirt in the midday sun. If you are diligent about sun protection for them AND you, the entire family's chances of avoiding the Cutaneous Oncology unit increases dramatically.
Being aware of melanoma also means knowing that a little prevention goes a long way. Few people are dying from tooth decay, yet most of us go to the dentist for preventative cleaning and checkups annually. Men over forty are (hopefully) getting a prostate exam, and mammograms are annual standard-issue breast cancer prevention. Yet, only a fraction of the same population sees a dermatologist with any regularity. With the aforementioned black-diamond-like descent in survival rate based on spreading, and skin cancers affecting one in five Americans over their lifetime, are those really numbers you want to bet against?
An awareness day (or month) isn't just an excuse to sell ribbon buttons and trumpet a cause you believe in. Those of us who are affected by an affliction spread the word so that those who aren't affected can be informed and avoid the same fate. In an overwhelming majority of cases, doing the simple things to prevent melanoma will keep you and your kin healthy with little disruption to your daily lives. Skin cancer can be prevented. Melanoma can be avoided. If you don't believe me, ask the spouses, the children, the parents, and the family and friends of nearly 10,000 who will die this year alone. Or the one(s) who passed away since you got your last cup of coffee this morning.
T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »