May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and here at Academic Alliance in Dermatology, we want to help spread knowledge about melanoma! To kick off our mini-series, we’ll be answering a question that many of our patients ask: what causes melanoma? As with any type of cancer, mutations can occur at random; however, there are certain risk factors that are proven to increase your risk for developing mutations.
Like all cancers, melanoma is caused by abnormal mutations in the cells, specifically skin cells in this case. These cells then connect to a blood supply and reproduce at rapid rates, creating a growing mass. The distinction between melanoma and a benign tumor lies in cancer’s ability to metastasize and spread to other areas of the body. But why do these cells mutate in the first place? Let’s go over the basic melanoma risk factors.
As we age, our bodies naturally lose the ability to repair damaged cells. Additionally, the longer we have been alive, the more replications our cells have passed through. The statistics simply are stacked against us as we age— this is why routine exams are so important in our later years.
The sun produces moderate amounts of ultraviolet radiation; these wavelengths are invisible to our eyes but can wreak havoc on our skin cells. Aside from causing physical burns, ultraviolet light can actually denature the tiniest compounds of our DNA, causing genetic damage and facilitating random mutations. A healthy body’s immune system will recognize these damaged cells and trigger apoptosis (cell death), but some mutations slip through the cracks.
While we don’t understand exactly why this is the case, people with a family history of certain types of cancer are more likely to experience them for themselves. If a family member has had skin cancer, you should take extra care to avoid the risk factors you do have control over.
At this point, we all know how damaging cigarettes and tobacco are to our health. However, it’s becoming more and more apparent that secondhand smoke has the same detrimental effects, just to a lesser extent. According to a study from 2001, “an association between smoking and squamous cell carcinoma of the skin was found.” Aside from increasing your risk for lung cancer and other serious complications, smoking can increase your risk for skin cancer, as well.
Skin pigments are a natural defense against the skin’s harmful ultraviolet light; they help absorb and disperse the radiation, directing it away from our cells’ nuclei. Unfortunately, the skin pigment that causes fair skin to be so light (pheomelanin) is more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). According to a review paper from 2015, “melanins, in particular pheomelanin, can also have toxic properties, especially upon exposure to UVR.”
Unlike darker-skinned pigments, pheomelanin is highly photoreactive and degrades very easily, causing the release of toxic particles and reducing the skin’s ability to protect the genetic material inside the nearby nuclei. For this reason, it is incredibly important for fair-skinned individuals to wear UVA and UVB skin blocks.
Weak Immune System
A healthy immune system is always on the lookout for cells with damaged DNA. In a perfect system, these cells would be targeted for destruction and phagocytosis (consumption by an immune cell) before any irreparable damage occurs. Unfortunately, immunocompromised individuals are at high risk for cancers for this very reason; a weak immune system or a body on immunosuppressant drugs is more likely to let some compromised cells through the cracks.
Looking for a Melanoma Doctor?
Here at Academic Alliance in Dermatology, we know melanoma inside and out. Our very own Dr. V has more than 40 years of experience in this field, and he has seen many different patients with skin cancer! If you have a sneaking suspicion about a strange mole, or you just can’t check your own back for a routine self-screen, we’re here for you. Schedule an appointment with our professional, experienced staff today.