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  • Rajani Katta MD

What you don't know about melanoma can be dangerous--and even fatal

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

Melanoma is one of the most dangerous types of skin cancer. If detected early, melanoma has almost a 100% cure rate. BUT, if melanoma is caught at a late stage, it's very difficult to treat. That's why we call melanoma a potentially deadly skin cancer. And that's why early detection is so critical.

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Melanoma is a potentially deadly form of skin cancer, and can occur anywhere on the body, including areas that have never seen sunlight.

Which brings me to a few basic questions about melanoma. What is the most common location on the body for melanoma in a Caucasian man? In a Caucasian woman? In an African-American man? I was in charge of the dermatology course at the Baylor College of Medicine for many years, and I've asked this question to hundreds of medical students. Most get it wrong.

Why? When most people think of melanoma, they think of sun exposure. That's why many believe that the most common location for melanoma is the face or the arms.

The correct answers, though, are these: Melanoma occurs most often on the back in Caucasian men. In Caucasian women, it's the legs.

In African-American men, as well as African-American women, Asian men and women, and Hispanic men and women, it's the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and under the nails. Melanoma does often occur on the face and arms. In fact, melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, including areas that have never seen sunlight. I've diagnosed several melanomas on the buttocks.

Why does melanoma occur in all of these areas?

We don't know for sure, because there's a lot we don't yet understand about melanoma.

We do know that it's more common in individuals with fair skin, and those who are prone to sunburn. We also know that a history of sun exposure, and especially sunburns, increases your risk of melanoma. (And that includes the use of tanning beds.) We also know that over the last few decades, we've seen a dramatic rise in cases of melanoma in the United States. Unfortunately, while we've made some progress, the treatment of advanced melanoma is an area that definitely needs more research, since advanced melanoma continues to kill many patients every year.

That's why we emphasize early detection. If you or your loved ones have risk factors for melanoma, it's very important to start examining your skin monthly for new or changing skin lesions. It only takes a few minutes every month, but it can save your life. And since melanoma often occurs on the back, you'll need to have somebody helping you watch your back. AND the back of your legs. And your buttocks. And the bottom of your feet. (Or you can learn how to use two mirrors to check your back and legs.)

This video from the American Academy of Dermatology demonstrates how to perform a skin check. If you did not know that the most common location for melanoma in these groups was the back, the legs, and the palms and soles, then your friends and family members may not know either. Try quizzing them, and then spread the word. The bottom line: If you have a partner at increased risk for skin cancer, you should be starting every month with this: "Honey, I've got your back." Followed up with a skin check.

*If you'd like future updates on preventive dermatology and the role of diet, sign up here.

Dr. Rajani Katta is the author of Glow: The Dermatologist's Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. To receive future updates on preventive dermatology and the role of diet, sign up here.

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