Symptoms, treatment, and why being careful in the sun is so important in your teens and 20’s
With a particularly hot summer, it’s especially important to protect yourself from melanoma and other skin cancers.
In this Community Conversation on July 29, 2021, Eric Whitman, MD, surgical oncologist, medical director of Atlantic Health System Cancer Care and the director of the Atlantic Melanoma Center, discussed how to prevent skin cancer, symptoms you should be aware of and the exclusive groundbreaking treatment options and clinical trials available through Atlantic Health System.
What causes melanoma and skin cancer?
Melanoma and skin cancer are related to sun exposure. Dr. Whitman said that, over the course of your lifetime, the more you are exposed to the sun, the higher your risk of developing skin cancer.
“It's really important to be careful, particularly when you're younger, because we think that as people are growing and maturing, their skin is maturing as well, and they seem to be particularly susceptible to the damage from sun exposure when they're in their teenage years or 20s.”
What does melanoma or skin cancer look like?
A good rule of thumb is to examine the moles on your body to see if any are abnormally shaped or change over time. Dr. Whitman said “If one looks way different than all the other ones, that's maybe one you want to show to your doctor or a dermatologist.”
How often should a person check for abnormalities?
It depends upon your personal health history, your family history of skin cancer and what your dermatologist recommends. It is important to establish a relationship with a physician who can monitor your health and wellness. Find a dermatologist >
If a person suspects they have skin condition that requires a physician visit, should they start with their primary care doctor?
Dr. Whitman explained that contacting a primary care doctor for an evaluation should be your first step, unless you are already under the care of a dermatologist. If the condition warrants further review, the physician will order a biopsy to determine the next steps. Find a primary care doctor >
How important is it to detect skin cancer early?
Dr. Whitman said that, if melanoma or any type of skin cancer has enough time to grow and progress, it can be very dangerous. Surgery to remove affected areas may not be sufficient to treat advanced-stage skin cancer.
How are melanoma and skin cancer treated?
According to Dr. Whitman, when melanoma is caught early, it is very treatable and requires a minimal local surgical procedure. If the melanoma or other forms of skin cancer become more advanced, additional treatments may be necessary. Learn more >
How have treatments for melanoma and skin cancer evolved?
Treatment for skin cancer has evolved in two ways. Dr. Whitman explained that first, the amount of skin that is removed to treat melanoma has been reduced, lessening the need for skin grafts. Second, over the past five to 10 years, physicians have begun to use systemic therapies, treatments for the entire body, such as intravenous therapies or pills, that are effective even if the melanoma or other skin cancers have started to spread.
How can people protect themselves from skin cancer, especially in the summer months?
Dr. Whitman acknowledged that, after a long year when many people stayed inside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a pent-up desire to enjoy the outdoors during the warm weather. However, he urged people to be smart about their exposure to the sun.
He said it is important to wear sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, to reapply it often and after going in the water, and to limit your time in direct sunlight, especially when the sun is overhead and the hottest.
Are certain types of people more susceptible to melanoma?
People with pale skin, red hair, light-colored hair, or light-colored eyes tend to have an increased risk of skin cancer. But Dr. Whitman stressed that people who do not have these characteristics can also develop skin cancer, even those with dark hair, dark skin or brown eyes. He reiterated that it is important to examine your own skin for abnormalities and to see a dermatologist if anything appears irregular.
Does your risk of melanoma increase if you have been diagnosed with it in the past?
If you've had one type of skin cancer or melanoma, you are much more likely to develop it again in your lifetime. Dr. Whitman said your chances depend on your initial diagnosis, your age and your family health history. In fact, if you have a parent or sibling who developed melanoma, it doubles your risk of developing the condition.
What kind of skin cancer research is being conducted at Atlantic Health System?
The Atlantic Health Cancer Consortium Community Oncology Research Program (AHCC-CORP) is advancing the understanding and treatment of skin cancer.
“It's an exciting time and it's great for our patients and the community to know that even if the melanoma or skin cancer becomes more advanced, there's often a really great treatment for it. We've been involved in a lot of that innovative research in melanoma (and) skin cancer,” said Dr. Whitman.
The program was awarded a grant from the National Cancer Institute which gives the AHCC-CORP access to sponsored research on subjects including symptom control and delivery and management of care. The AHCC-CORP is also involved in research on skin cancer treatments that goes beyond surgery and medicines to find effective options for patients.
What is the Breakthrough Oncology Accelerator at Atlantic Health System?
Atlantic Health System formed the Breakthrough Oncology Accelerator in 2018 with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGEN) in Phoenix, Arizona. TGEN is a high-level, federally funded cancer research lab. The partnership provides Atlantic Health System patients and physicians access to clinical research trials and cutting-edge care.
“We want to make it easier to get these treatments to the people who really need them,” said Dr. Whitman. “We want to be involved in the breakthroughs. We want to be doing the stuff that really makes a difference for people.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is safe to seek care?
Early detection is important for the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer, so it is critical that people see a dermatologist if they have a concern. Dr. Whitman said that safety is a top priority and that patients and the medical staff follow all COVID-19 protocols, including masking and rigorous sanitizing. Virtual visits to review CT scans and images are available. In addition, Dr. Whitman noted that experts from around the world can now meet virtually to enhance the level of collaboration and care for the benefit of patients.