This article appears in July/August 2015 60-Plus.
Tony Lazzaretti kept an eye on the mole on his chest for some time. When it started getting bigger, he made an appointment with his doctor to get it checked. A biopsy confirmed that it was melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Lazzaretti, 70 years old at the time, said he was never a “sun bunny,” but he remembers getting some bad sunburns.
Lazzaretti had surgery to remove the mole and several lymph nodes, but a couple of years later, the cancer returned. This time the cancer was too extensive to remove with surgery, says Alissa Marr, M.D., an oncologist at Nebraska Medicine specializing in melanoma and lung cancer.
“We started him on a new immunomodulatory drug and he has had no reoccurrence since then,” she says. “This is a remarkable story of how advanced treatments have become. Over the past four years, there have been six new drugs introduced for metastatic melanoma that have been very effective in a select group of patients.”
The cases of melanoma have steadily increased over the past 30 years, notes Dr. Marr. The greatest increases have been among white women between the ages of 15 and 39 years, and in men over age 65.
While the cause for the increase is not known, better identification, use of tanning beds, and having one or more blistering sunburns as a youth appear to boost the risk. Some research shows that people who use tanning beds are 74 percent more likely to get melanoma than those who don’t use them, notes Dr. Marr.
“If melanoma is caught at an early stage and treated with proper surgical resection, it is highly curable,” she says.
Melanoma typically starts as a mole. See a doctor if you experience any of the ABCDE’s of a mole: asymmetry; border irregularity; color variation; diameter (anything larger than a pencil eraser); and evolution, meaning a mole that is changing, itchy, or bleeds.
The highest incidence of this cancer occurs on the back of the legs in women, and on the trunk and back for men. However, it can occur on any area of the body, even those that have not been exposed to the sun, says Marr. If you get a suspicious mole removed, it needs to be an excision or punch biopsy by a qualified physician in order to get an accurate evaluation.
Basal and squamous cell skin cancers, the most common forms of skin cancer, typically occur on chronically sun-exposed areas such as the head, neck, ears, and arms, and are directly related to amount of sun exposure. Suspicious symptoms include: a shiny, waxy, scar-like spot that may be yellow or white with irregular borders; a smooth bump that is indented in the middle; a reddish patch that won’t go away and may be painful or itchy; or a sore that takes more than three weeks to heal.
“Everyone should have a full body skin exam every year by their doctor to check for skin cancer,” says Dr. Marr. “The goal is to find it before it progresses and when it is still very treatable.”
Now Lazzaretti tells his kids every chance he gets: stay out of the sun, stay away from tanning beds, and wear sunscreen.