Melanoma Monday: DC area dermatologist shares tips on skin cancer prevention, sun safety
Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, but it can often be detected early, when it’s likely to be cured — and doctors say most skin cancers can be prevented. Every first Monday in May is ‘Melanoma Monday’.
Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, but it can often be detected early, when it’s likely to be cured — and doctors say most skin cancers can be prevented.
“‘Melanoma Monday’ is all about awareness and prevention — we’re really focused on early diagnosis,” said Allison Larson, chair of dermatology at MedStar Health and MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the DC region.
As of 2023, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 98,000 new melanomas will be diagnosed nationwide and about 8,000 people will likely die.
Larson said the goal is to prevent melanoma from developing: “The biggest risk factor for melanoma is UV exposure.”
“The way to prevent melanoma is UV protection, which comes in the form of sunscreen for most people, but there is also sun protection clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor),” Larson said.
Certain people are at particular risk of developing melanoma.
“People with lighter skin and lighter hair, especially red hair, are at higher risk,” Larson said. “People with a history of sun blistering and a lot of sun exposure are at higher risk.”
In addition, people taking medications that suppress their immune systems are at increased risk, she said.
“Your immune system fights infection, but it also fights cancer, including skin cancer, so those people have to be especially careful and we have to screen those people regularly,” Larson said.
Indoor tanning is “a high risk for the development of skin cancers, including melanoma,” Larson said.
Tanning has an addictive element, she said, in the sun or tanning beds.
“It releases endorphins. It links to your reward system,” Larson said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that people still want to do it. Not only do they like the look of it on their skin, but they also like the way it feels.
However, Larson said prolonged exposure to UV rays can cause problems later in life.
“We think about sun exposure in childhood, and searing sunburn in childhood is a major risk factor for skin cancer in adulthood,” she said. “It often takes many decades for skin cancer to manifest.”
Larson said avoiding the sun and UV exposure — midday is the time of greatest risk — is a healthy way to minimize risk.
“You can buy a tan in a bottle these days,” Larson said. “In the beginning there were a lot of artificial color tones that were very orange and looked a little unnatural.”
A lot has changed, Larson said.
“Nowadays they look very natural,” she said. “They look like a tan you would get in the sun, and it’s completely safe.”