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07-21-2007, 02:11 PM
For many, the warm rays of the summer sun are a welcome respite from the dull days of winter. But before you make outdoor plans, it's important to know the facts about melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

Men need to be especially observant, as they account for nearly 65 percent of melanoma deaths each year in the U.S. While researchers are unsure of the reason, men tend to have a worse prognosis than women, even when the tumors are relatively similar in size and thickness.

"Melanoma comprises less than 5 percent of all skin cancers, yet it is the number one cause of skin cancer related deaths," says Han N. Lee, M.D., director of dermatologic surgery and cutaneous oncology at the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In 2007 alone, the American Cancer Society estimates that over 8,000 Americans will die of the disease, representing more than 77 percent of skin cancer deaths.

Melanoma is a malignant tumor that originates in melanocytes, which are the cells that produce melanin--the pigment that colors our skin, hair, and eyes. It is typically found on the skin, including the scalp and under fingernails and toenails, but can also occur on the eyes, ears, gastrointestinal tract and mucous membranes.

Fortunately, according to Lee, melanoma is treatable if caught early. "A patient has more than a 95 percent chance of being cured if melanoma is caught at an early stage and treated with surgery," she says.

Those who have a prior history of melanoma or a family history are particularly vulnerable.

"However, those genetic factors are things we cannot control, but the part that we can control is our UV exposure," says Lee, who speculates that melanoma may be have a stronger correlation with intense, intermittent sun exposure and having sunburn as a child than with lifetime sun exposure. In fact, melanoma is the one type of skin cancer that is more common among people younger than 30 years of age.

"Many male melanoma patients present with lesions on their backs and arms," says Lee. "These are areas that are most exposed in the summer, when intense sun damage can happen."

Experts being vigilant about the ABCDs of melanoma:

-- Asymmetry - half of the lesion does not match the other half
-- Border irregularity - the edges of the lesion are ragged, notched or blurred
-- Color changes - the color of the lesion is not uniform and may be shades of tan, brown or black. Lesions with discoloration of white, red or blue shades are of particular concern.
-- Diameter - greater than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser) is typically of concern, although any growth of a lesion is worth evaluating.

Staying out of the sun in the middle of the day when rays are strongest, using sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more everyday and wearing protective clothing are the best ways to protect against melanoma, Lee advises.

http://www.usc.edu (http://www.usc.edu/)