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Skin Cancer (Melanoma) FAQs

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Take the Skin Cancer (Melanoma) Quiz First! Before reading this FAQ, challenge yourself and
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Q:Self-examination is important in the detection of skin cancer. True or False?

A:True. Because most melanomas occur on the skin where they can be seen, patients themselves are often the first to detect many melanomas. About 50,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the United States every year.

Every malignant skin tumor in time becomes visible on the skin's surface, making skin cancer the only type of cancer that is almost always detectable in its early stages.

Note: Nobody can diagnose himself or herself. If you see a spot that looks as though it is new or changing, show it to a doctor. When it comes to spots on the skin, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

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Q:Most moles become skin cancer. True or False?

A:False. The vast majority of moles remain moles and do not turn into anything else.

Almost everyone develops moles, starting in childhood. On the average, people have about 25 moles. Moles may be flat or raised, and they may range in color from tan to light brown to black.

Everybody gets spots on their skin. The older we are, the more spots we have. Some of these are freckles, others are moles, and still others are made up of collections of tissue, such as blood vessels or pigment cells. Most of these spots are benign. That means they are neither cancerous nor on the way to becoming cancerous.

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Q:Because you have sunburn, your risk of developing skin cancer has increased. True or False?

A:True. Individual sunburns do raise your risk of melanoma. However, some daily sun exposure, even without burning, may also substantially raise your risk of skin cancer.

Factors that raise your risk for melanoma include the following:
- Caucasian (white) ancestry
- Fair skin, light hair, and light-colored eyes
- A history of intense, intermittent sun exposure, especially in childhood
- Many (more than 100) moles
- Large, irregular, or "funny looking" moles
- Close blood relatives -- parents, siblings, and children -- with melanoma


Note: The presence of close (first-degree) family with melanoma is a high risk factor, although looking at all of melanoma, only 10% of cases run in families.

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Q:Skin cancer is definitively diagnosed by what?

A:Skin biopsy. Most doctors diagnose melanoma by examining the spot causing concern and doing a biopsy.

A skin biopsy is the removal of a piece of skin for the purpose of further examination in the laboratory using a microscope. Skin biopsies are performed to diagnose a number of conditions.

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Q:Changes in colored lesions are rarely signs of skin cancer. True or False?

A:False. Changes in the appearance of skin lesions may indicate a serious problem.

When changes such as pain, swelling, or even bleeding occur, it is an indication that something may be serious. If a spot changes rapidly and then goes back to the way it was within a couple of weeks, or falls off altogether, it is not likely to represent anything serious. If the symptoms or signs continue, a visit to your doctor is in order.

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Q:What are the ABCs of skin cancer?

A:Melanomas most often arise on normal skin, but they may also occasionally occur in conjunction with a benign nevus (beauty mark or birthmark). The identification of potentially malignant pigmented lesions is best remembered by using the first five letters of the alphabet as follows:

A is for asymmetry
B is for border irregularity
C is for color multiplicity
D is for diameter greater than one-quarter inch
E is for evolution (change) in the size and/or shape

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Q:Which state leads the nation in skin cancer cases?

A:California. According to the CDC's U.S. statistics as related to melanomas of the skin, skin cancer ranks highest is the follow top 10 states:

1. California
2. Florida
3. New York
4. Texas
5. Pennsylvania
6. Ohio
7. North Carolina
8. New Jersey
9. Michigan
10. Georgia

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Q:Skin cancer is the most common cancer in humans. True or False?

A:True. Skin cancer is the most common form of all human cancers in the United States, accounting for 75% of all cancer diagnoses. The two most common types -- basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma -- are highly curable. Melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, is more dangerous.

The annual rates of all forms of skin cancer are increasing each year, representing a growing public concern. It has also been estimated that nearly half of all Americans who live to age 65 will develop skin cancer at least once.

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Q:Most cases of skin cancer are cured. True or False?

A:True. Most cases of skin cancer are cured, but the disease is a major health concern because it affects so many people. The incidence of skin cancer is rising, even though most cases could be prevented by limiting the skin's exposure to ultraviolet radiation through the appropriate use of sunscreen, limiting time in the sun, and wearing protective clothing.

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Q:Who is most at risk for skin cancer?

A:Men. Skin cancer is about three times more common in men than in women, and the risk increases with age. Most people diagnosed with skin cancer are between ages 45 and 54, although all forms of the disease are appearing more often in younger people. If you or any close relatives have had skin cancer, you are more likely to get the disease.

Geography and race also factor into your chances of getting skin cancer, with the rate of skin cancer at its highest where fair-skinned Caucasians migrated to an area with higher annual sun exposure than their prior climates.

Dark-skinned people are rarely affected, and then only on light areas of the body such as the soles of the feet or under fingernails or toenails.

Fair-skinned people are most susceptible because they are born with the least amount of protective melanin in their skin. Redheads, blue-eyed blonds, and people with pigment disorders such as albinism are at the greatest risk.

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Q:Which country has the highest rates of skin cancer?

A:Australia. Skin cancer tends to strike people of light skin color. An estimated 40% to 50% of fair-skinned people who live to be 65 will develop at least one skin cancer. The incidence of skin cancer is predictably higher in places with intense sunshine, such as Arizona and Hawaii. It is most common in Australia, which was settled largely by fair-skinned people of Irish and English descent.

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Q:Tanning booths are the main cause of skin cancer in the United States. True or False?

A:False. Excessive exposure to sunlight is the main cause of skin cancer. Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) rays that can alter the genetic material in skin cells, causing mutations. Sunlamps, tanning booths, and X-rays also generate UV rays that can damage skin and cause malignant cell mutations.

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