My father Sam died twenty-three years ago today. He was 69 and had been diagnosed with melanoma seven months before. Once melanoma metastasizes, the average life span is around six months. I read the other day about a new melanoma drug that will prolong melanoma patients’ lives up to 10 months. Not good enough.
Melanoma can be cured, if it is caught early enough. Although genetics increase the likelihood of getting the disease, doctors believe prolonged exposure to the sun is the most likely cause. My dad was an avid tennis player. He played for hours outdoors every weekend, from May to September, with the sun beating down on the courts. We have no idea if that was the cause because back then no one knew much about this type of cancer.
If you’re anything like I was in my teens and twenties, getting a tan was high on my list of priorities. I slathered a mixture of baby oil and iodine on my skin before I went to the beach, then I stayed out in the sun for hours. “One or more severe, blistering sunburns as a child or teenager can increase your risk of melanoma as an adult,” according to the Mayo Clinic website. Other risk factors include:
Fair skin: Having less pigment (melanin) in your skin means you have less protection from damaging UV radiation. If you have blond or red hair, light-colored eyes, and you freckle or sunburn with ease, you are more likely to develop melanoma than is someone with a darker complexion. But melanoma can develop in people with darker complexions, including Hispanics and blacks.
Living closer to the equator or at a higher elevation: People living closer to the earth’s equator, where the sun’s rays are more direct, experience higher amounts of UV radiation, as compared with those living in higher latitudes. If you live at a high elevation, you’re also exposed to more UV radiation.
Having many moles or unusual moles: Having more than 50 ordinary moles on your body indicates an increased risk of melanoma. Also, having an unusual type of mole increases the risk of melanoma. Known medically as dysplastic nevi, these tend to be larger (greater than 1/5 inch or 5 millimeters) than normal moles and have irregular borders and a mixture of colors.
A weakened immune system: People with weakened immune systems have an increased risk of skin cancer. This includes people who have HIV/AIDS and those who have undergone organ transplants.