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Melanoma Risk Factors

Many people are at risk for developing melanoma, a type of skin cancer. What is your risk for melanoma?

About Melanoma

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, according to the America Cancer Society. While melanoma accounts for only about 1 percent of all skin cancers, it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. Doctors diagnose about 106,110 new melanomas in the United States each year, and the disease claims about 7,180 American lives annually.

Like other forms of cancer, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body. In the early stages of melanoma, the skin cancer cells remain localized in the original site. As melanoma spreads, the skin cancer cells can be found lungs, liver, bones, brain, digestive system, and lymph nodes. Fortunately, most people find their melanoma in its early stages, before it has spread; understanding their risk factors for melanoma helps many people stay alert to the signs this skin cancer causes.

Certain factors can increase your risk for developing melanoma. Some of these risk factors are controllable, while others are not.

Am I at Risk for Melanoma? Here’s How to Find Out

Assess your non-controllable risk factors

Certain risk factors for melanoma may be out of your control. These risk factors include:

  • Age – the average age of people with melanoma is 65; however, melanoma is one of the most common forms of cancer in young adults
  • Gender – men have a higher rate of melanoma than do women, but it varies by age, with the risk of melanoma higher for women before age 50 but higher for men after age 50
  • Fair skin, freckling, and light hair – the risk of developing melanoma is higher for whites than for African Americans, with whites with fair skin that freckles or burns easily, red or blond hair, or blue or green eyes at increased risk
  • Family history of melanoma or other skin cancers – your risk may be higher for melanoma if you have one or more parents, siblings, or children who have had skin cancer; about 10 percent of everyone with melanoma has a family history of the disease
  • Personal history of melanoma or other skin cancers – if you have had melanoma or another form of skin cancer, you are at higher risk for developing it again
  • Having a weakened immune system – your immune system helps fight all types of cancers, including melanoma; having a history of certain diseases and medical treatments, such as AIDS or organ transplants, can weaken your immune system to increase your risk of melanoma
  • Having xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) – a rare, genetic condition that affects your skin cells’ ability to repair DNA damage

Assess your controllable risk factors

You can control some risk factors for melanoma. These controllable risk factors include:

Sun exposure

Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can damage the skin’s DNA, which contains your unique genetic code. Your DNA is like a recipe book that tells the cells of your body how to function. Damage to the DNA prevents the cells from working properly, and can cause cells to become cancerous. In other words, excessive exposure to the sun can damage your skin cells in ways that may cause the development of melanoma.

You can’t always avoid the sun, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of melanoma by wearing sunblock, long sleeves, and a hat while outdoors, and seeking shade whenever possible.

Indoor tanning

While sunlight is the main source of UV light, tanning beds and sunlamps also produce the ultraviolet light that can damage skin cell DNA.

Count and assess any moles you may have

Also known as a nevus, a mole is a non-cancerous (benign) pigmented tumors. Most people with moles never experience problems, but people with many moles are more likely to develop melanoma than are those with just a few.

There are several types of moles; some types of moles are more likely to develop into melanomas than are others. Types of moles include:

  • Common Nevi – a normal small skin growth that is pink, tan, or brown in color and has a distinct edge
  • Congenital Nevi – about one in 100 people have these moles when they are born; congenital nevi may be more likely to turn into melanoma compared with moles that develop after birth, particularly those measuring more than 8 millimeters
  • Dysplastic Nevi – larger than a pencil eraser and irregularly shaped, these moles tend to have uneven color featuring darker brown centers and lighter, uneven edges; if you have dysplastic nevi then you have a greater chance of developing cancerous, or malignant, melanoma.

Use the National Cancer Institute’s Melanoma Risk Assessment Tool

Developed by scientists at National Cancer Institute, the Melanoma Risk Assessment Tool can help you estimate the likelihood that you will develop melanoma within the next 5 years. To use this online interactive tool, simply select or enter in your race, age, geographic location, gender, skin characteristics, and number of moles or freckles. The tool will return your estimated risk for developing melanoma, along with a reminder that the estimations do not predict exactly who will develop this form of skin cancer.

Consult with your dermatologist at Center for Dermatology & Laser Surgery
Our dermatologists at Center for Dermatology & Laser Surgery can help you determine your risk for melanoma. We provide mole evaluation and can diagnose melanoma to help you catch this type of skin cancer in its earliest stages, when it is most responsive to treatment. For more information, contact Center for Dermatology & Laser Surgery today.