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Vital Signs

Summer 2007

Check Skin Regularly and Carefully for Any Changes

Given the high cure rate when detected early and the limited treatment options once the disease has spread, an annual skin exam to check moles for early signs of melanoma is recommended for everyone beginning in adolescence.

"Survival rates drop significantly with advanced melanoma," says Roger Lo, M.D., Ph.D., a dermatologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital. "With early detection, at least 95 percent of patients will be cured. That's why a yearly examination is so important." These annual visits include education of patients on conducting monthly self-exams between the annual appointments.

Dr. Lo encourages anyone experiencing changes in symptoms related to a mole to see a dermatologist. "Any local pain, itchiness or bleeding should definitely be checked," he says. Factors that increase one's risk for melanoma include age, family history, extensive sun exposure and sunburns, fair skin and getting freckles in response to sun exposure. But Dr. Lo emphasizes that everyone is at risk—even people who don't burn in the sun shouldn't feel a false sense of safety.

Older treatments have not improved survival rates significantly for patients with metastatic melanoma, but research is active in the field, according to Antoni Ribas, M.D., UCLA medical oncologist. Dr. Ribas, who has been involved in developing new drugs that target the disease, notes that so-called immunotherapy drugs, which "train" the immune system to fight the cancer, are yielding promising results in clinical trials.

Use the ABCDE rule to check for early signs of melanoma

Asymmetry: a mole that looks different on one side compared to the other

Border: irregularity on the outer edges of the mole, such as a jagged, blurry, protruding or notching border

Color: changes in color, or the appearance of multiple colors

Diameter: a rapid increase over a course of months in the mole’s size

Evolution: changes in A, B, C and D, as well as the onset of itching, pain and/or bleeding

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