Melanoma screening raises awareness

by Todd Milbourn

Following the death of his son to melanoma skin cancer, Donald Nightingale decided to have himself checked out.
“I’m outdoors a lot, and I know this can run in families,” said Nightingale, of Minneapolis. “And this is a good opportunity to have it looked at.”
University physicians examined Nightingale and other University and community members during “Melanoma Monday,” the fourth annual free-screening day at Phillips-Wangensteen Building.
The public screening day is an effort to improve early detection of tumors, as well as raise awareness of melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.
This year, nearly 50,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer are expected by the American Cancer Society. However, about 8,000 will be discovered only after the cancer has spread to fatal levels.
“Most people are unaware of how deadly it is,” Nightingale said. “You don’t want to mess around with it.”
“One in 75 people born this year will get skin cancer, said Dr. Whitney Tope, University dermatology department director. “But if you can catch it early, you can cure it.”
Melanoma is a form of skin cancer which begins in pigment cells called melanocytes and, if undetected, spreads rapidly to other areas of the body.
Melanoma accounts for only about 4 percent of all documented skin cancer cases. However, its fast-spreading nature makes it responsible for nearly 80 percent of all skin cancer deaths.
Throughout the day, physicians examined the skin of patients in search of the dark, irregular or bleeding mole-like lesions characteristic of malignant tumors.
“We look for changes or new moles with irregular borders, colors and asymmetric shapes,” said University dermatologist Dr. Sky Connolly.
Most frequently, tumors develop on the torsos of fair-skinned men and on the legs of fair-skinned women. However, melanoma can strike any skin type and occur anywhere on the body, even in parts not protected by the skin.
Malignant tumors usually develop as a result of overexposure to the sun and ultraviolet radiation.
“Sun exposure is cumulative and is the primary factor. However, there is some evidence of genetic disposition,” Connolly said.
People who have an immediate family member with skin cancer are five to six times more likely to develop skin cancer than the general population, Tope said.
Underapplication of sunscreen and the depletion of the ozone layer have also contributed to the increase in melanoma, Connolly added.
Despite the pervasiveness of melanoma, numerous precautions are available to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer.
“Vigorous sunscreen, SPF 30 or greater, is a good habit to get into,” Connolly said. “Also, avoid the sun’s peak hours, 11 to 2; only stay out for an hour at a time; and re-apply that sunscreen.”

Todd Milbourn covers science and technology. He welcomes comments at mmil[email protected]. He can also be reached (612)627-4070 x3231.