Skin Cancer and Genetics: More Than Meets the Eye

Many factors can increase the risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancers.  Some of these factors are due to behaviors, like exposure to the sun.  However, some risk factors for skin cancer are inherited in families.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that affects about 59,000 people every year in the United States.  People who have a parent or sibling who has had melanoma are at about double the risk of the general population.  This is because family members may have similar histories of sun exposure and may share inherited physical features like fair skin or light hair.  In some families, there is an inherited risk for melanoma related to genes that are passed from parents to their children.

If you or a family member has had melanoma, it may be worth talking with your doctor about the rest of your family history.  Some clues to inherited risk include:

  • Individuals with more than one melanoma
  • Other cancers in family members including:
    • Pancreatic cancer
    • Head and neck cancer
    • Breast cancer
    • Ovarian cancer
    • Cancers diagnosed at earlier ages than typically expected

People who have a family history of multiple relatives with cancers could benefit from meeting with a genetic counselor to talk about possible genetic testing, personal cancer risk, and cancer screening options.

For people who have an increased risk of melanoma, there are important steps that can help to reduce the chance of developing melanoma.

Limit sun exposure

  • Find shade when possible
  • Avoid exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when UV light is strongest
  • Wear protective clothing
  • Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher daily

Check your skin

  • Learn how to do a skin self-exam and check your skin once a month
  • Have regular skin exams by a doctor
  • Talk to your doctor if a mole or spot on the skin is changing in size, shape or color, or if it is persistently itching, bleeding, or growing

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