UCI Health promotes sun safety and self-screening during melanoma awareness month

May 05, 2014

May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month and UCI Health specialists treat all skin cancers including melanoma, basal cell carcinomas, complex and advanced squamous cell carcinomas, among others.

Our skin experts encourage self-exams three to four times a year as well as yearly skin checks with a dermatologist.  They also recommend limiting the amount of sun and UV rays’ exposure.

“Self-exams are key in finding suspicious looking skin abnormalities,” says Dr. James Jakowatz, director of UCI Health Melanoma Center. “When performing a self-exam, it is important to become familiar with any moles, spots or birthmarks. Use a handheld mirror to help view hard-to-reach areas and keep a record of the findings so you can discuss them with your doctor.” 

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers — and one of the most preventable. The American Cancer Society estimates that 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed annually. Melanoma, the deadliest of all skin cancers, begins as a mole or other pigmented skin tissue and if caught early, is very treatable. Melanoma accounted for more than 76,000 skin cancer cases in 2013.

“The skin is the largest organ of the body and it needs to be evaluated just like any other body part,” says Jakowatz. “It is important to have anything abnormal on your skin checked out by a dermatologist as soon as possible.” 

Melanoma develops from cells that produce melanin for skin color. Melanin protects the deeper layers of the skin from harmful effects of the sun. When exposed to the sun's ultraviolet rays, the radiation can damage genes that control when and how cells grow and divide. 

While melanoma is less common than basal cell and squamous cell cancers, it is more likely to spread to other body parts. Jakowatz warns that melanoma is most curable when caught in the earliest stages. Once it metastasizes, or spreads to other organs, melanoma is much more difficult to treat and is less curable.

While no one is entirely immune from getting melanoma, certain people are at higher risk, including:

  • People who have many, irregular or large moles
  • Those with a family history of melanoma or who have inherited a genetic predisposition
  • Folks with pale or fair skin that burns and/or freckles easily
  • Redheads and blonds or those with light-colored eyes
  • Anyone with a history of sunburns as a child (including blistering sunburns)
  • People who live in places with year-round sunshine
  • Anyone who has had other skin cancers

The most important warning sign for melanoma is a new or changing mole or patch of skin. This includes a growth with a change in size, shape or colors that progress over a month or more. 

Other suspicious changes in a mole include:

  • Scaliness
  • Itching
  • Spreading of pigment from the mole into surrounding skin
  • Oozing or bleeding
  • A sore that does not heal or a mole that stands out or looks different than other moles 

“The best way to lower your risk of skin cancer is to avoid intense burning and prolonged exposure to the sun and UV rays,” says Jakowatz. “You can still enjoy the outdoors but you have to be smart about it. Be sure to wear sunscreen, protective clothing and a hat. Your skin will thank you in the long run.”

Dr. James Jakowatz is the director of the Melanoma Center in the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. He also serves as a clinical professor in the department of surgery and is board certified in surgery. Jakowatz was named a Best Doctors in America® for melanoma and surgical oncology in 2011 and 2012. 

UCI Health comprises the clinical, medical education and research enterprises of the University of California, Irvine. Patients can access UCI Health at physician offices throughout Orange County and at its main campus, UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, Calif., a 412-bed acute care hospital that provides tertiary and quaternary care, ambulatory and specialty medical clinics, behavioral health and rehabilitation. U.S. News & World Report has listed it among America’s Best Hospitals for 13 consecutive years.

UC Irvine Medical Center is home to Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, high-risk perinatal/neonatal program, Level I trauma center and Level II pediatric trauma center. It is also the primary teaching hospital for UC Irvine School of Medicine. UCI Health serves a region of more than 3 million people in Orange County, western Riverside County and southeast Los Angeles County. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter