Is Melanoma Genetic?
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Unlike non-melanoma skin cancers, melanoma can spread quicker to other organs if not treated early. It forms within melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin, which is the substance that determines your skin color. Ultraviolet light (UV rays) either from sunlight or from artificial sources like tanning beds, damage melanocytes. That damage can cause the cells to grow out of control. Turning into melanoma skin cancer.
There is evidence that a family history of melanoma can increase your risk for developing it too.
Family History of Melanoma and Genetic Factors
Compared to people who have no family history of melanoma, you are at greater risk if you have a parent, child, brother or sister who has had it. Overall, about 8% of people who develop melanoma have a first-degree relative who has also experienced it. Some 1-2% of those with melanoma have two or more relatives with it.
Researchers can’t pinpoint exactly why members of the same family are more prone to develop melanoma. It may be that they have similar interests, like hiking, boating or otherwise spending lots of time outside. Or, it could be a genetic abnormality that triggers melanoma to develop.
To date, two genes have been linked to familial melanoma: CDKN2A and CDK4. A small percentage of people with familial melanoma have mutations on these genes. However, many people with a family history of melanoma don’t have these gene mutations. Regardless, if you know there’s a family link, you need to take extra precautions to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.
Am I at Risk for Melanoma?
Anyone can get melanoma, even people without a family history of the cancer. And, at the same time, some people with close relatives who have had a melanoma will never experience it.
Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of developing melanoma or any other type of skin cancer.
Skin cancer risk reduction includes:
- Never use tanning beds.
- Limit the amount of time you spend outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are at their peak.
- Use sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. Apply it liberally 15-30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours during the day, after swimming, getting wet or drying off with a towel.
- Don’t use expired sunscreen. Check the expiration date before use.
- Wear protective hats, long pants and sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes from sunlight.
Early Detection Increases Survival Rates for Melanoma
According to the American Cancer Society, half of new melanoma cases are expected to be invasive, which means the cancer grows deeper into the skin. Melanoma is a particularly aggressive cancer and can spread within the body in three to 18 months if not caught and treated early.
Once melanoma spreads, it becomes much more difficult to treat. So, if you have a family history of skin cancer, self-exams are vitally important. You should also have your skin examined annually by a qualified healthcare professional. Your doctor or nurse can identify suspicious growths on your skin before it has a chance to spread.
Skin Self Exams: What to Look For
When examining your skin, remember the ABCDEs:
- Asymmetry. If you imagine a line drawn through the middle of a growth or discoloration, the halves would not match.
- Border. The edges are uneven, fuzzy or jagged.
- Color. Skin cancer can change colors and may be a combination of black, tan and brown.
- Diameter. Suspicious areas are usually larger than a pencil eraser.
- Elevation. If an area on your skin becomes raised or thick, it’s a warning sign that indicates cancer may be spreading.
You should get in the habit of examining your skin each month. This helps you determine what looks “normal: on your skin. That way, you can more easily decide if a freckle, mole and pigmented area has changed.
If you do find changes on your body or you identify new growths or pigmented areas that look odd or appear to be growing, consult a dermatologist as soon as possible.
Everyone is at risk regardless of family history. Practice self-exams regularly so you can become familiar with your skin and can seek help if something doesn’t seem right. If you notice changes, contact your doctor or dermatologist. They will refer you to an oncologist, like those on our team at Minnesota Oncology, who are experienced in the treatment of melanoma.
About Dr. Economou: Dr. Economou, a native of Austin, Minnesota, is board certified in Aesthetic & Reconstructive Plastic Surgery. He is skilled in all aspects of aesthetic/reconstructive surgery, including facial aesthetic surgery, breast surgery (augmentation, reduction, reconstruction), and melanoma treatment.