Saving your skin

December 01, 2012
Dr. Kenneth Linden

Each year, millions of Americans develop cancerous skin lesions. The vast majority of these are easily treated and highly survivable, but some are—or could become—melanomas, which can be aggressive and potentially deadly.

The causes of skin cancer vary, ranging from excessive sun exposure to family genetics. People who have numerous moles or compromised immune systems—as seen in people who have had organ transplants or HIV/AIDS, for example—are also more susceptible.

At UC Irvine's Melanoma Center, dermatologists, surgeons, oncologists and pathologists have created the Pigmented Lesion Program for at-risk patients. The program, which is part of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, is the first in Orange County to encompass research, training and patient care related to suspicious lesions and moles.

"Generally, it's difficult for people at high risk of skin cancer to receive comprehensive care," says Dr. Janellen Smith, a UC Irvine dermatologist and co-director of the Pigmented Lesion Program. "Our team has many years of expertise, knowing which moles and lesions need to be treated and which need to be left alone. We watch them pretty carefully."

Among the sophisticated equipment used by Melanoma Center physicians is a SIAscopeTM, one of the most advanced melanoma imaging systems in the world. UC Irvine Medical Center is the only medical facility in California currently using the device for melanoma detection, according to UC Irvine’s Dr. James G. Jakowatz, a surgical oncologist and Melanoma Center director.

The noninvasive SIAscope records the pathological pattern of each mole. Subsequent scans flag pattern changes, letting doctors monitor multiple lesions simultaneously.

"For patients with many moles, this computer imaging can make a big difference," Smith says. "It decreases the number of biopsies needed, so they won't look like a pincushion."

"This is essential for people who have lots of atypical moles," says dermatologist Dr. Kenneth Linden, co-director of the Pigmented Lesion Program. "It helps with overall management of melanoma risk."

That risk continues to grow. Melanoma is diagnosed in an estimated 68,000 Americans a year. The percentage of people who develop melanoma has more than doubled in the past three decades, Smith says.

If not treated early, melanoma can turn virulent. Its cells penetrate more deeply into the skin and can enter the bloodstream and lymph node channels, dispersing cancer throughout the body. According to Linden, one person dies of melanoma every hour in the United States.

"We believe our comprehensive program is vital to keeping on top of melanoma risk," he says. "We want to see patients with precursors to this form of skin cancer and catch it before it spreads."

In addition to caring for patients, doctors with the UCI Health Melanoma Center conduct research and host clinical trials of promising new treatments. The program also sponsors monthly multidisciplinary conferences for area internists, oncologists, dermatologists, radiologists and family medicine physicians to discuss the latest advances in the field.

—Tom Vasich, University Communications

Learn more about Dr. Jakowatz ›

Learn more about Dr. Linden ›

Learn more about Dr. Smith ›