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A Spot Check Can Save Your Life
Fri May 3,11:56 PM ET

By Colette Bouchez

HealthScoutNews Reporter

FRIDAY, May 3 (HealthScoutNews) -- It's the fastest rising cancer in men, and the rate of increase in women is second only to lung cancer. And you can dramatically increase your risk by doing nothing more than walking out your front door.

The disease is malignant melanoma, the most virulent of all skin cancers, and experts say that sun exposure is the main cause.

"There is no question, if you take away sun exposure, you're going to reduce the rate of skin cancer. It is the single most powerful cause of melanoma," says Dr. Darrell Rigel, professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine.

An article in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association ( news - web sites ) says that the rate of skin cancer has been steadily climbing during the past 70 years.

In 1930, the risk of developing invasive malignant melanoma was just one in 1,500. Today that rate is a staggering one in 68 -- with some 53,000 new cases and 7,000 deaths expected this year alone, the article says.

The good news is that early diagnosis saves lives. That's the message Rigel and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) hope to get across on the eighth annual May 6 "Melanoma Monday" -- the kickoff of a monthlong, nationwide program of free skin exams.

"Our goal is see as many people as possible, and to encourage those we don't see to check out any suspicious skin lesions, moles, markings, lumps, bumps, or anything else that looks like it might be a problem," says Rigel, who is also the past president of the AAD.

When diagnosed early, experts say even the most potentially virulent melanoma can be cured -- usually by having the affected mole or lesion removed. Wait too long, however, and this can become one of the most aggressive and deadly cancers.

"It can metastasize to the brain, the pancreas, the lymph nodes, the blood, and even the heart," says Rigel. By the time a melanoma is the size of a dime, he says, it's probably on its way to other organs.

Why are the rates going up? Experts say the rays we get today are more dangerous from those of generations ago. Slow destruction of the atmospheric shield known as the ozone layer is to blame, according to researchers.

"There is no question that the depletion of the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere has increased the power of the burning rays of the sun," says Dr. Ted Daly, a Long Island dermatologist.

Studies show that since the 1970's ozone depletion -- believed to be caused by pollution -- has been steadily on the rise, Daly says. He adds that as ozone levels declined, we watched the rate of skin cancer skyrocket.

"The less ozone protection we have, the stronger the burning UVB [ultraviolet-B] rays of the sun are -- and the greater our risk of skin cancer," says Daly.

Daly warns against counting on sunscreen as your saving grace. While it certainly can protect you, it can do the job only if you use it right.

"We sweat, we go in the water, we dry off, and the protection is gone," he says. Unless you put on sunscreen frequently -- and generously -- you're probably not getting all the protection you need, he says.

In addition, Rigel says that many people further increase their risk by turning to tanning salons for that bronzed look all year long. While many centers claim to use only the "safe" ultraviolet-A (UVA) rays to give you that golden glow, Rigel says there's no fooling melanoma with a catchy advertising phrase.

"In natural sunlight, 90 percent of the burning rays are UVB and only about 10 percent are UVA, so yes, it's hard to get a sunburn from UVA rays if you're in natural sunlight," says Rigel. However, he says, in order to get the UVA rays to tan you in a salon, they have to be 300 to 500 times more intense than what you get from the sun.

"The bottom line is you won't get a suntan without damaging your skin, and in the end it doesn't matter which rays do the damage. Your risk of skin cancer is going up," says Rigel.

While melanoma almost always develops in adulthood, experts say the sunburns of childhood can do the most damage, increasing our risk of cancer with every sun exposure we get later in life. Most people will get the majority of their lifetime exposure to the sun by the time they're 18 years old. As such, both Daly and Rigel emphasize protecting your children as well as yourself from the damaging rays of the sun.

What To Do

For the location of the free skin cancer screening nearest you, click on the American Academy of Dermatology. Screening begins nationwide on Monday, May 6th.

Read an AAD report on the signs and symptoms of malignant melanoma.

The Skin Cancer Foundation has a rundown on melanoma and tips on how to examine yourself.