Sunny skies are nice; but take heed

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There are a reported 53,000 new cases of the skin cancer, melanoma, and 7,800 deaths yearly. It is the most common cancer in young adults aged 20-30.

By Bridget Graham-Gungoren/ Special to The Malibu Times

A beautiful sunny day in Malibu can bring a gorgeous tan, but it can also bring something ominous.

With more than 53,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer reported each year, it is the fastest growing cancer in the U.S. and worldwide.

“Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer,” Dr. Jessica Wu, doctor of dermatology practicing in West Los Angeles, said in a recent phone interview. “But it is treatable if caught early.”

Melanoma usually starts in the skin, the largest organ of the body, but can also originate in the eye, digestive tract or lymph nodes. In men, melanoma is usually found on the head, neck or between the shoulders and hips. Melanoma usually develops in women on the lower legs, but can also be found under the fingernails or toenails.

“The good news,” Wu said, “is that you can see it and remove it in its early stages.”

Therefore, it is important to get checked at least once a year by a dermatologist, Wu stated, “just like an annual physical.”

A 100 percent survival rate is reported when superficial melanoma is diagnosed early.

In advanced stages, when melanoma is found in lymph nodes, survival rates drop and continue to drop as the cancer spreads to major organs. Only 4 percent of skin cancer cases are attributed to melanoma, yet it is the cause of most skin cancer deaths. There have been no significant advances for medical treatment of advanced melanoma in the last 30 years.

Those who have had frequent sunburns over the years should see their dermatologist more than once a year, Wu recommended.

“You have a greater chance of developing melanoma if you have had blistering sunburns in the past, throughout your childhood,” Wu said.

Longtime Malibu resident Nancy Atchison-Aylesworth died earlier this year after a long battle with melanoma. One of her sons, Thomas Aylesworth, died from complications from his battle with melanoma in 2003. He was 34 years old.

Other risk factors include: moles, fair complexions, light hair or blues eyes, family history of cancer (could mean that certain gene changes are present), and medicines that suppress the immune system. If a person has already been treated for melanoma, they should be checked several times a year to catch any reoccurrence-melanoma can return as many as 10 years after the first diagnosis. Even wit hout these specific risk factors, melanoma can still affect everyone.

With age, melanoma odds increase, but it doesn’t necessarily discriminate between age groups, and is one of the most common cancers in young adults. The Melanoma Research Foundation states that there are currently more new cases of melanoma cases reported than of HIV/AIDS. Melanoma in women between the ages of 25 and 30 is said to be the primary cause of cancerous deaths; women age 30 to 35 count melanoma as the second cause of cancerous deaths, after breast cancer.

Melanoma isn’t always preventable, but there are precautions that one can take.

“You can’t be a hermit and hide indoors,” Wu said. “But you can be smart.”

Being smart, she said, includes minimizing sun exposure during the hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the sun is the strongest. But if your tennis game can’t be rescheduled, be sure to wear a hat and use sunscreen with UV (the burning rays of the sun) protection and zinc oxide.

“Zinc oxide these days is less pasty than what we used as kids,” Wu said. She actually has created her own “cosmeceutical” line of skincare and recommends an SPF of at least 30 for protection from the burning rays of the sun. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection.

Sun protection should be reapplied every three to four hours when swimming or sweating, and applied 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure. Additionally, lip balm and sunglasses with UV protection should be worn in the sun for added protection.

Other sources of UV light, such as tanning beds and sun lamps should also be avoided as precautions.

Additional information can be found at www.cancer.org, www.melanoma.com and www.melanoma.org.