Smart Ways to Protect Against Melanoma

Published 3:27 pm Friday, May 28, 2010

Dear Savvy Senior,

Is melanoma hereditary? My dad died of it a few years ago at age 71, and I dont want to follow in his footsteps. What can I do to guard against this deadly skin cancer?

Sun Screened Cindy

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Dear Cindy,

While long term sun exposure and sunburns are the biggest risk factors for melanoma, your genes can definitely play a role too. Heres what you should know.

Whos at Risk?

Each year, about 65,000 Americans develop melanoma the deadliest form of skin cancer. While anyone can get it, those most often diagnosed are Caucasians, age 50 and older. And those most vulnerable are people with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, fair skin, freckles, moles, a family history of skin cancer and those who had blistering sunburns in their youth. &bsp;


The best way you can guard against melanoma and other skin cancers (basal and squamous cell carcinomas), is to protect yourself from the sun, and if youre over age 50, get a full-body skin exam done by a dermatologist each year. Self-examinations done every month or so is also a smart way to detect early problems. Check your entire body, and be on the look-out for new growths, moles that have changed, or sores that dont heal. For self-examination tips and actual pictures of what to look for see &bsp;

Sun Safety

Even though you cant change your skin or family history, you can control your sun exposure. Here are some tips and products to help, and remember, its never too late to start protecting your skin:

&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;Stay in: Avoid the sun when possible from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the ultraviolet (UV) rays are most intense.

&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;Use sunscreen: Be sure to choose a broad-spectrum product that provides UVA and UVB protection and has a SPF (sun-protection factor) of at least 30. If you dont like the rub-on lotions, try the continuous spray-on sunscreens which are easier to apply and re-apply and less messy.

&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;Sun pills: Theres a nonprescription sun-pill on the market called Heliocare that provides additional UV protection. The pills are intended to supplement sunscreen, and are sold at drugstore chains for about $60 for a bottle of 60 pills.

&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;Cover up: Thick or tightly woven cloths can help prevent the suns rays from reaching your skin or you can purchase a variety of lightweight clothing and hats that offer maximum UV protection in their fabric. and are good places to find such products. &bsp;

&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;Wash-in protection: SunGuard laundry additive ( is another option that allows you to wash an invisible shield of sun protection right into your clothes.

&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;Monitor yourself: Oregon Scientific Inc. ( sells a handy UV monitor for $24 that will warn you when youve had enough sun exposure. Or, you can check sites like which provides UV Index ratings where you are.

&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;Wear sun shades: Sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection can help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration along with melanoma of the eye and skin cancer around the eyelids.


If melanoma is caught and treated early, its nearly 100 percent curable. But if its not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal. Standard treatment for melanoma is surgical removal. In advanced cases however, chemotherapy or radiation may also be used.

Savvy Tip: In the spring and summer, there are a variety of places that offer free skin cancer screenings. Check with the American Academy of Dermatology (888-462-3376, which offers free screenings done by hundreds of volunteer dermatologists across the U.S. You can also find free screening through the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (, and the Skin Cancer Foundation (

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.