May is Melanoma Awareness Month. I know, it’s not something most people celebrate or even know about. It tends to be a pretty somber subject, but with summer right around the corner, I feel it’s a good time to start a conversation.
Did you know that melanoma is the most common type of skin cancer that occurs in children? According to St. Jude Children’s Research hospital, approximately 7% of all cancers diagnosed in children between the ages of 15 and 19 are melanomas. It is estimated that between 300 to 400 children under the age of 19 are diagnosed in the U.S. each year with a type of melanoma.
As a woman of Irish decent, I have always been very fair skinned with freckles, moles, and strawberry blonde hair (red when I was born). Turns out this is the exact combination for children who are at a higher risk of developing melanoma than other children. I have been very lucky because this is not something that was well known when I was younger and I typically spent every summer baking in the sun trying to get a tan so that I could fit in with my peers and only burning in the process. I often looked more like a tomato than I did an actual child.
As I grew older, I learned just how much I was damaging my skin and setting myself up to develop melanoma. I spent many months under a knife testing many suspicious spots on my skin. I had quite a few that turned out to be A-typical, meaning they were abnormal and had the potential for turning cancerous, and the doctors had to go back in again to ensure they removed it all. After that, I started having yearly checkups and taking better care of my skin in general.
As a result, I have unintentionally gained a wealth of knowledge on the topic of melanoma prevention that I feel may be useful for other moms. So here goes; my brain dump of important information to keep in mind as you go into these sweltering hot days of summer with your kiddos (yourself as well):
Take Inventory Of Your Child’s Skin
Sounds strange, I know, but hear me out. If your baby is like me and fairly light skinned with freckles and moles, it’s important to know what is on their body and where. Even if your baby isn’t light skinned, it is still important as skin cancer does not discriminate. Take pictures, make a drawing, make a list. Whatever works best for you. Somehow document where every mole is, it’s size, shape, and color. Having this information is crucial in monitoring for potential melanoma.
Remember the A, B, C, D, E’s
When making your inventory and performing your regular checks, remember the alphabet (or at least the first part anyway – haha)
A – Asymmetry, does one half of the mole not match the other
B – Border irregularity
C – Color that is not uniform
D – Diameter, anything larger than a pencil eraser (6mm) should be checked
E – Evolving size, shape or color
The classical ABCDEs of melanoma that are seen in adults are not exactly the same in children so if you spot any moles that you feel may be of concern at all, bringing it up to your pediatrician is a must. Don’t hesitate. Remember, the vast majority of pediatric cancer cases are identified because the parent brought up their concern to their pediatrician.
Check regularly, especially during the summer months. Melanoma is one disease that, if caught early, chances of survival are extremely high.
Babies Under 6 Months Old and Sunscreen
It’s best to keep your little ones under 6 months out of the sun all together. Avoid using sunscreen on babies this age because they can get significantly more exposure to the chemicals within the sunscreen compared to older children. If you plan to take your little one out, make sure that they are covered; at least a hat and covering over their upper extremities such as their neck and shoulders. Keep them in the shade away from direct UV rays as much as possible.
Sunscreen for Children and Teens
The most important thing to remember when considering which sunscreen to use for your child is that you make sure it is efficacious against UVA and UVB rays. It’s recommended that the sunscreen be between a 15 SPF and 50 SPF. There’s not much evidence that anything above 50 has more protective qualities; however, I personally choose a 100 SPF and I have found that it does work better for my skin.
Even if the sunscreen you choose states that it is waterproof or water-resistant, this doesn’t mean that you should only apply it once. It’s important, especially if the child is sweating or in and out of the water, that you re-apply the sunscreen at least every 2-3 hours.
It is also recommended that you keep your children out of direct UV rays during the hours of 10 and 2. We all know this is not always feasible though, so be sure to use sunscreen, shade, and covering as much as possible when these hours are unavoidable.
Teenage Girls and Tanning
Moms, our girls are strong willed and often determined to be a part of the crowd of natural tanners. The biggest increase in melanoma in recent decades has been with girls between the ages of 15 and 19. This is because of their determined desire to sunbathe and use tanning beds. I have been there. I also have a teenage daughter. I can feel your pain. If there’s one thing I can recommend to you in addition to all of the other tips listed here, it’s keep them away from the tanning beds.
The US Department of Health and Human Services as well as the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer have both declared that UV radiation from artificial sources such as sun lamps and tanning beds can both cause melanoma and increase the risk of benign mole progressing to melanoma because it is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance). The rule in my house is if she wants to use a tanning bed, she can – when she moves out on her own. Until then, not happening. It’s just not worth the risk.
Summer is one of the best seasons of the year for our kiddos. They love to play outside and enjoy the water and we love to watch them. Protecting their skin is not even on their radar. It can become a battle, I know, but taking these precautions is very much worth it in the long run, I promise. Have a great summer!!!