You’ve heard melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer (true). You’ve been told that sun exposure is a major risk factor and that you should be regularly checking your body for new or changing moles (also true). Some widely held beliefs about melanoma, however, are not so true, and the misconceptions could put your health at risk. Here are five common myths, and the facts behind the fiction:
Myth: All you need is sunscreen.
Fact: It’s certainly important, but alone, it’s not enough. In addition to using a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB), water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, you should wear a wide-brimmed hat, wrap-around sunglasses (with 99 percent to 100 percent UV absorption) and, when possible, a shirt and long pants (made of tightly woven fabrics). Also, seek shade if your shadow appears shorter than you; that’s when the sun is at its strongest, usually from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Myth: Melanomas form only on sun-exposed spots.
Fact: They are more likely to appear on your face, neck, legs and back, but melanomas also can develop on parts that see less sun, such as the soles of the feet, palms of the hands or fingernail beds. Melanoma is almost always curable when it’s found early — get regular doctor checkups, and about once a month, do a self-exam. Use mirrors to check your body from top to bottom, front to back, under your arms, between fingers and toes, and even nail beds. You’re looking for a mole or marking that is changing in size, shape or color, or one that looks different from any other spot on your body. Melanomas are usually brown or black but can appear pink, tan or even white. Report changes to your doctor.
Myth: Salon tanning is safer than sunbathing.
Fact: Some sunlamps emit doses of UVA as much as 12 times that of the sun, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And if that’s not reason enough to stay away from the tanning salon: The American Academy of Dermatology reports that indoor tanners are 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors, and the risk increases with use. Recently, the FDA proposed stricter regulations on tanning devices, including adding a warning label alerting users to the risk of skin cancer and advising young people to steer clear. Though melanoma is still rare in children, a new study shows that the number of diagnosed cases is rising, with the biggest jump seen among adolescents ages 15 to 19, especially girls.
Myth: Only the fair and freckled are affected.
Fact: It’s true that many (many) more Caucasians develop melanoma than African Americans and Hispanics. It’s also true that having red or blonde hair, blue or green eyes, and light skin that freckles or burns easily raises your risk; and new research takes it one step further, suggesting redheads are at an increased risk, even if they don’t spend time in the sun. Darker-skinned people, however, can and do develop melanoma, usually in less-obvious spots; they are also at a higher risk of death from skin cancer.
Myth: A base tan prevents sunburn
Fact: There’s no such thing as a safe or protective tan.
— The Doctors is an Emmy-winning daytime TV show with pediatrician Jim Sears, OB-GYN Lisa Masterson, ER physician Travis Stork, and plastic surgeon Andrew Ordon. Check www.thedoctorstv.com for local listings.