Your Best Chance for Surviving Melanoma? Get Treatment Early

Fast treatment is critical for early stage cases

Your Best Chance for Surviving Melanoma? Get Treatment Early

You likely know that melanoma is a dangerous form of skin cancer that’s usually curable if you catch it early. So you know it’s important to inspect your body regularly to watch for changes in moles or other lesions on your skin. But a recent Cleveland Clinic study concluded that it’s also critical to get treatment for melanoma quickly after your diagnosis.

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Researchers led by plastic surgeon Brian Gastman, MD, Director of Melanoma Surgery at Cleveland Clinic, found that the more quickly you receive treatment, the better your chances of survival are — especially for stage I melanoma, which is cancer at an early stage of development.

A closer look at the study

Using the National Cancer Database, Dr. Gastman and his team reviewed the cases of 153,218 adult patients who had stage I, stage II and stage III melanoma between 2004 and 2012.

The team noticed significantly worse outcomes for those who had surgery more than 30 days after a stage I melanoma diagnosis.

“Time to treat was not as significant if you were a stage II or stage III patient with melanoma,” Dr. Gastman says. “However, it made a big difference in stage I because it’s representing a time that the melanoma is still early enough where you can remove and kill it.”

In other words, early diagnosis allows doctors to improve your chances of survival with a prompt surgery.

Chances of survival decreased for all patients who waited more than 90 days for surgery, regardless of stage, researchers found.

“Knowing for certain that a more expedient time to surgery to remove an early melanoma improves the chances of survival is a game-changer in treating this life-threatening skin cancer,” Dr. Gastman says.

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Know your risk factors — and protect yourself

Melanoma is different from other cancers because most patients don’t have symptoms when they come in to have their physician evaluate a mole. “It’s usually a little skin lesion they may have noticed for many years that has slightly changed,” Dr. Gastman says.

The study is a critical reminder of how important it is to watch for signs of skin cancer, especially for those who are more at risk, he says.

If you have any of these risk factors, you are more likely to develop melanoma:

  • Lots of moles
  • Many childhood sunburns
  • Personal or family history of skin cancer or melanoma
  • Radiation exposure

“Your level of scrutiny should increase if you have one or more of these risk factors,” Dr. Gastman says.

“Also, melanoma can occur anywhere on your body, not just your back, shoulders, or nose,” he says. “It can show up on your buttocks or the bottom of your foot. If you are at a high risk, you need a head-to-toe, everywhere-the-sun-doesn’t-shine evaluation.”

Even if you’re at lower risk, it’s a good idea to watch for signs of skin cancer and protect yourself and your children at all times.

“Avoid the sun at its peak level, such as at high noon,” Dr. Gastman says. “Sunscreen is great, but it wears off if it’s not waterproof. Be sure to reapply.”

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Wear sunscreen with at least SPF 30. Also, wear sun-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats.

Watch for these signs 

The best way to remember the signs of melanoma is to follow the ABCDE rule:

  • Asymmetry – The shape of one half of the mole does not match the other half.
  • Border – The mole has ragged, notched or blurred borders or edges.
  • Color – The mole has mottled or uneven coloring, with shades of brown, black, gray, red and white.
  • Diameter – The size of the mole is greater than the tip of a pencil eraser (6 millimeters).
  • Evolving – The mole is changing in size, shape or color or there’s a new mole.

“The signs that concern me the most are any skin lesions that are evolving, elevated and the diameter is larger than 6 millimeters,” Dr. Gastman says.

If you have had a melanoma removed, you should see a physician every three months for two years, and then every six months for up to five years, he says.

“You want to remove any melanoma as soon as possible before it becomes life-threatening,” Dr. Gastman stresses. “While we have good drugs for patients today, those drugs work best when you have less tumor burden.”

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