Studies show the number of skin cancer cases in the U.S. are growing at an alarming rate. In fact, over the past three decades, more people have been diagnosed with some form of skin cancer (most of which are nonmelanoma or basal and squamous cell skin cancers) than all other cancers combined. Melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, is much less prevalent but is the deadliest type.
- An estimated 106,110 new cases of invasive melanoma (penetrating the dermis or the skin’s 2nd layer) will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, with 7,180 deaths expected to result from the diagnosis.
- Melanoma accounts for less than 1% of skin cancer cases, but the vast majority of skin cancer deaths.
- The overall lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 2.6% (1 in 38) for Caucasians, 0.1% (1 in 1,000) for African Americans, and 0.6% (1 in 167) for Hispanics.
- The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 99% in the U.S. The survival rate falls to 66% when the disease reaches surrounding tissue or lymph nodes and 27% when the disease metastasizes to distant organs.
Sources: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021; the Society’s website; and The Skin Cancer Foundation
Signs and Symptoms
A symptom is a change in the body that a person can see and/or feel. A sign is a change that the doctor sees during an examination or on a laboratory test result. If you have any of the symptoms below, it does not mean you have cancer but you should see your doctor or health care professional so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
- A is for Asymmetry:One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
- B is for Border:The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
- C is for Color:The color is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
- D is for Diameter:The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
- E is for Evolving:The mole is changing in size, shape, or color
Other signs of melanoma that don’t fit the ABCDE signs include:
- A sore that doesn’t heal
- Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into surrounding skin
- Redness or a new swelling beyond the border of the mole
- Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain
- Change in surface of a mole – scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or appearance of a lump or bump
Source: American Cancer Society’s website 2021
Skin Cancer Research
In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack skin cancer – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.
Dr. Danny Welch is exploring how mitochondria – a specialized cell part that generates energy for our bodies – may determine why cancer metastases develop in some patients, but not in others. Differences in tumor formation, metastasis location and responses to therapy could be from our mitochondrial DNA. With continued success, this research may suggest that a simple blood test can help guide doctors in treating melanoma patients who are susceptible to metastasis and may need more aggressive treatment.
Another focus for Dr. Welch: His team has also discovered eight genes that may get turned off as cancer cells become metastatic cells – called metastasis suppressor genes. KISS1 gene was discovered in melanoma and the scientists determined that the cells expressing KISS1 can complete all of the early steps of the metastatic process but do not form a new metastatic site. The Welch lab continues to define the significant parts of the KISS1 gene to develop small anti-metastasis therapeutics that mimic the KISS1 gene’s function and arrest cells in forming a new metastatic lesion.
For melanoma and other cancers, Dr. Paul Fisher is developing novel therapies that deliver an immune modulator gene he discovered, IL/24, to primary and spreading tumor cells, leaving healthy cells untouched. IL/24 causes tumor cells to commit ‘cell suicide’ and among its many anti-cancer properties, it activates the immune system to further fight cancer while sensitizing tumor cells to radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. One type of IL/24 gene therapy also includes a gene that fluoresces (lights up) when IL/24 finds and destroys tumor cells for theranostic approach (detection and treatment-monitoring). Another therapy combines IL/24 with a patient’s own immune T cells (adoptive cell therapy) to supercharge the T cells to fight cancer more effectively.
Dr. Helmut Sies, who received funding from NFCR for over 30 years, spent his career studying the role of micronutrients in cancer prevention and specifically focused on carotenoids and flavonoids. He discovered that lycopene – a carotenoid and antioxidant found in tomatoes, carrots and other red vegetables and fruits – is the most powerful molecule to quench or reduce the damaging effects of oxygen produced by our body’s essential metabolic processes. Lycopene also has strong skin cancer prevention effects. His research illustrated how flavonoids (found in cocoa products) can prevent skin damage caused by ultraviolet radiation, improve blood vessel function and reduce cardiovascular risk.