Talk about surprising: Every year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than breast, lung, colon, and prostate cancers COMBINED, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. About one in five Americans will get skin cancer during their lifetimes, and the biggest risk factor is UV light (think sun).
While these stats sound scary, 99 percent of skin cancers are basal or squamous cell carcinomas. These skin cancers don't usually spread to other organs and tend not to be fatal unless they're left untreated. Yet while melanoma, the third form of skin cancer, is the rarest, it's also the deadliest, making up the majority of skin-cancer deaths.
Skin cancer, especially melanomas, can also run in families. Up to 2 percent of all cases of melanoma can be caused by inherited genetic mutations. To make sense of the research, and what to do if skin cancer runs in your family, we turned to Sancy Leachman, M.D., director of the Knight Cancer Institute's Melanoma Research Program at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, OR. Here's what she wants people to know.
1. Some genetic mutations carry a higher risk than others.
Luckily they're rare, but if you carry just one copy of the mutation (meaning you inherit a copy from either your mom or dad) your risk can go up 30 to 70 percent during your lifetime. The average person's risk of getting melanoma is about 2 percent.
2. The most common genetic mutation is the gene responsible for red hair, light eyes, and freckles.
Everyone has a gene that makes brown pigment, and when you inherit the mutation that disables that ability, your body produces red pigment. This genetic mutation is pretty common--about 30 percent of people whose ancestors came from northern Europe carry at least one copy, even if they're not redheads! It also makes you more vulnerable to the harmful effects of UV rays so your risk of developing melanoma is twice to four times as high as the average person. You also have a higher risk of developing basal or squamous cell carcinomas.
3. Some of those high-risk mutations can cause other cancers.
People who have a family history of melanoma also have a higher risk of developing breast or pancreatic cancer, depending on the mutation they have. "There's a mutation called P16, which not only causes causes melanoma but also increases your risk for pancreatic cancer. But there are other things going on, either in the environment or in other genes that are being inherited, that makes one family with P16 have more pancreatic cancer and another family with P16 have more melanoma. We have no proof of this but maybe if you have a P16 mutation and live in a sunny place, you might have a tendency to get melanoma. But if you lived in a place where there were more toxins or you were a cigarette smoker you might have a tendency to develop pancreatic cancer. We're still in the process of figuring stuff out," says Dr. Leachman.
4. Follow the Rule of Threes to figure out if skin cancer runs in your family.
The first: If you've had three different invasive melanomas--meaning the tumor has penetrated deeper into the skin and possibly spread into other places in the body. Or if you've had a melanoma and pancreatic cancer.
The second: Having three or more first- or second-degree family members--all of whom are related by blood to you and to each other--who've had invasive melanoma. So, your mom, aunt, and sister count. Your mom, dad, and uncle by marriage don't. And people who've had the other two types of skin cancer aren't included either.
The third: You've had two invasive melanomas and another type of cancer, like breast or pancreatic.
5. If you fall into any one of the categories above, go to a genetic counselor.
Very few people fall into this category, says Dr. Leachman. "For these people, I absolutely recommend that they talk to a genetic counselor. It can be potentially life-saving because we've discovered that if they test positive for one of these mutations, they follow medical recommendations. And they get their relatives on board too."
How to prevent skin cancer if it runs in your family:
1. Protect your skin.
When you're out and about, don't stand in the direct sunlight--go stand or sit in the shade. Cover up with clothing. "I I love clothing. It's better than sunscreen--it doesn't wear off or wash off," says Dr. Leachman. Use sunscreen in the spots you can't cover. "I like the sunscreens that are physical barriers only--zinc oxide and titanium oxide--those are the ones I use and recommend."
2. Examine your skin from head to toe. Every month, look for unusual growths or moles. You're looking for moles that are irregular on one side, or have different colors, or are the size of a pencil eraser, or have changed from last month. For hard to reach spots--like your scalp, your back, or the backs of your legs--get your mate involved.
3. See a doctor every year. A dermatologist can give you a total body exam.