Can Melanoma Skin Cancer Be Prevented?
Not all melanomas can be prevented, but there are ways to reduce your risk.
Limit UV exposure
The best way to lower the risk of melanoma is to limit your exposure to strong sunlight and other sources of UV light. Avoid being outdoors in sunlight too long, especially in the middle of the day when UV light is most intense. Be “sun safe” when you are outdoors. “Slip! Slop! Slap! … and Wrap” is a catch phrase to remind you of the 4 key ways you can protect yourself from UV light.
* Slip on a shirt
* Slop on sunscreen
* Slap on a hat
* Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and the skin around them
Protect your skin with clothing
Clothes vary in how much they can protect you. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or long skirts are the best. Dark colors are better than light colors. A tightly woven fabric protects better than loosely woven clothing. If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through too. And dry clothing is better than wet clothing.
Some clothing is made with built-in UV protection. There are also newer products that can increase the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) value of clothes you already own. Used like laundry detergents, they add a layer of UV protection to your clothes without changing the color or how the cloth feels.
Wear a hat
A hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around is good because it protects the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp. A shade cap (which looks like a baseball cap with about 7 inches of fabric draping down the sides and back) is also good. These are often sold in sports and outdoor supply stores.
A baseball cap can protect the front and top of the head, but not the neck or the ears. Straw hats are not a good as ones that are made of tightly woven fabric.
Use sunscreen and lip balm. Many groups like the American Academy of Dermatology, recommend using products with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more. Be sure to use enough — a palmful for your whole body. And put it on again every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating. Use sunscreen even on hazy or overcast days. For it to work best, sunscreen should be put on 20 to 30 minutes before you go outside.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you’re using sunscreen, you can stay out in the sun longer. Sunscreen should not be used to gain extra time in the sun, because you will still end up with damage to your skin.
If you want a tan, try using a sunless tanning lotion. These make you look tan without the danger of UV damage. You do not have to go out in the sun for these to work. The color tends to wear off after a few days.
Wear sunglasses: Wrap-around sunglasses that absorb at least 99% of the UV rays help protect your eyes and the skin around your eyes. Look for sunglasses labeled as blocking UVA and UVB light.
Stay in the shade: Look for shade, especially in the middle of the day, between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest. If you are not sure about how strong the sun is, use the shadow test: if your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s rays are the strongest, and you need to protect yourself. Keep in mind that sunlight (and UV rays) can come through clouds, reflect off water, sand, concrete, and snow, and can reach below the water’s surface.
Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps: Don’t use tanning beds or sun lamps because they can damage your skin. There is growing evidence that they may increase your risk of getting melanoma, especially if use started before the age of 30.
Protect children: Be especially careful about sun protection for children. Children tend to spend more time outdoors and they burn more easily. Teach them to protect themselves from the sun as they get older. Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight and protected from the sun using hats and clothing.
A word about sunlight and vitamin D
Doctors are learning that vitamin D has many health benefits. It may even help to lower the risk for some cancers. Vitamin D is made by your skin when you are in the sun. How much vitamin D is made depends on many things, such as how old you are, how dark your skin is, and how brightly the sun shines where you live.
At this time, doctors aren’t sure what the best level of vitamin D is, or how best to balance the benefits of getting vitamin D from sunlight versus the risks of skin cancer. If you have darker skin or live in a place with little daily sunlight, many experts suggest taking vitamin D by mouth, such as in supplements or certain foods. Most milk has vitamin D added.
To find out more about how to protect yourself and your family from UV rays, see our document, Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection.
Check for abnormal moles and have them removed
If you have many moles, your doctor may want to watch them closely with regular exams. The doctor may want to remove some of them if they have certain features that suggest they may be changing into a melanoma.
Genetic counseling and testing
Gene changes (mutations) that increase melanoma risk can be passed down through families, but they account for only a small portion of melanomas. You might have inherited a gene mutation that increases your risk of melanoma if:
* Several members of one side of your family have had melanoma
* A family member has had more than one melanoma
* A family member has had both melanoma and pancreatic cancer
* You have had more than one melanoma
There is a gene which has been found to have changed (mutated) in some families with high rates of melanoma. Because it’s not clear how useful the test for this gene might be. Most melanoma experts do not recommend genetic testing for people with a family history of melanoma at this time. Still, some people make the personal choice to get tested.
Before getting any type of genetic testing, it’s important to know ahead of time what the results may or may not tell you about your risk. Genetic testing is not perfect, and in some cases the tests may not give you solid answers. This is why meeting with a genetic counselor before testing is the first step in deciding if testing should be done.